Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Stolen Seas

STOLEN SEAS                       C+                  
USA  Canada  Somalia  Denmark  Philippines  Estonia  (88 mi)  2012  d:  Thymaya Payne Official site

Much of this plays out like a journalistic exposé, where this feels like an in-depth television news piece rather than a feature length documentary movie, as this has a History Channel feel throughout in what is mostly a historical analysis of a particular event in time, the November 2008 hijacking of the CEC Future, a Danish cargo ship traveling through the Gulf of Aden by heavily armed Somali pirates, an event that alerted the world to the revival of this seemingly barbaric 18th century practice, becoming commonplace in the modern era along the East African coast of Somalia.  A necessary passageway between the Arabian Sea and the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden is subject to heavy commercial traffic, estimated in the billions of dollars each year.  The film does quickly get the audience’s attention in the pre-opening credit sequence by playing the actual audio recording of the ship’s captain alerting authorities that his ship is taking incoming bazooka fire, attacked by a high speed vessel with about a dozen men armed with Kalashnikov rifles who are outracing his ship, eventually boarding his vessel.  All of this happens literally within seconds, where the real drama begins when his voice cuts off, setting in motion a strange sequence of events that ends up with a hostage negotiations crisis.  The film takes us through the process where the ship immediately veers off course steered into a safe Somalia port city, and once there, the Danish CEO of the ship, Per Gullestrup, receives a ransom call asking for $7 million dollars.  What follows is a reenactment of a series of phone calls that initiates the negotiations in order to obtain the release of the 13 crew members, while the film takes a deeper look at the root causes of why Somalia is in such desperate straights, a poverty stricken country that hasn’t had a ruling government or any acting court since a Civil War broke out in 1991 with no resolution, turning instead into a nation of warlords, reminiscent of Japan’s 19th century feudal history when rival clans used samurai warriors for protection.

One of the significant aspects of the film is tracking down both Gullestrup and his counterpart Somali negotiator Ishmael Ali, as each are operating on decisively different points of view, becoming a window into their respective cultures.  Gullestrup is pretty much what you’d expect, a conservative, tight-lipped European businessman who’s used to seeing the world strictly in dollar signs, where driving a hard bargain, streamlining costs, and weighing financial options is what he does for a living, surrounded by lawyers, and plenty of advice from police and hired consultants.  In fact, he quickly hires a disinterested spokesperson to handle all the negotiations, a professional in dealing with extortion demands, which typically takes its time, as they are subject to various threats to hopefully bring about a quick resolution, but when these tactics don’t work, the pirates tend to grow increasingly frustrated.  Ishmael Ali, on the other hand, is a unique figure, educated and fluent in English, he’s seen living an upscale life in Somalia where he nonchalantly flaunts his wealth, owning about 75 camels, claiming owning camels in Somalia is equivalent to joining an exclusive country club in America.  Having lived in the United States for 20 years, leaving due to the frenetic pace of life, he’s the lone voice that has had a chance to experience both worlds, proudly proclaiming one can live like a king in Somalia for about a thousand dollars a year.  While the filmmakers trot out American and European journalists, historians, terrorism experts, and even Noam Chomsky, supposedly an expert on everything, but none provide the rare insight of Ali, who is himself the central figure in the movie, both during the negotiations and afterwards as he assesses what it’s like living in Somalia, usually seen relaxed, dressed in flowing robes, sitting before an electric fan.  While he was not one of the hijacking pirates, he was hired by them as a translator/negotiator due to his proficient language skills, where he openly acknowledges he needed the money to give his 2-year old son the possibility of having a future.  

While piracy still holds a romantic swashbuckling notion from Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn in films like THE BLACK PIRATE (1926), CAPTAIN BLOOD (1935), THE SEA HAWK (1940), or the recent PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN (2003 – 2015 and still counting) series, the more intriguing aspect of the film is what it unearths about the nearly unfathomable nation of Somalia itself.  Somalia is unlike anywhere else in the world, a communist state aligned with the Russians before the fall of the Soviet empire, they were left adrift with no one to sponsor their interests, becoming a bloody battleground in a senseless Civil War that resolved nothing, leaving half a million dead Somali’s in the wake and no acting government.  When the Americans attempted to lead a United Nations mission in 1992 to bring food to a starving nation, where 300,000 had already died from famine, they got caught up in the nation’s Civil War, attempting to arrest one of the brutally corrupt war lords who was guilty of massive human rights abuses and stealing much of the incoming food, but they paid a heavy price in doing so, as depicted in typical Hollywood style in Ridley Scott’s BLACK HAWK DOWN (2001).  Since that failed debacle, Somalia has been left alone to fend for themselves with little to no help from the outside world, where toxic chemicals wash up on their shores from discarded shipping waste, effectively destroying the shoreline fishing industry, which was once the nation’s leading source of income.  From the Somali point of view, the passing ships are simply sitting targets, potential sources of income in a nation nearly destroyed with a shattered and depleted economy.  But all evidence suggests there is no trickle down effect from the multi-million dollar ransoms paid, as a few get enormously rich, while there is no foreseeable dent in the nation’s poverty.  While the filmmakers intermix Ali’s discerning thoughts about Somalia with the increasingly frustrating, drawn out pace of the negotiations, they perhaps believe they are building interest.  But the film is more a stream of facts and information, serving more as a lecture on the tactics of Somali hijacking several years ago, never bringing the viewers up to date, so by the end we feel the filmmakers have somehow missed the point.  Due to increased policing from European Union and NATO countries, there has been a significant drop off in piracy incidents in 2012, where these days, seen from a strictly economic viewpoint, financial backers are less inclined to finance pirating expeditions due to the low rate of success.        

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