Sadly, the singular element intended to differentiate this Somali pirate flick from the clutch of other Somali pirate flicks proves a bit of a bust: On occasion, Femke Wolting and Tommy Pallotta’s observant, genre-smashing documentary feature takes wing into flights of animation, illustrating its subjects’ dreams and fears — and events the filmmakers couldn’t have captured. But despite their canny picture-book design, these sequences are often redundant, explicating inner dramas audiences will already have apprehended. Worse, the animated faces never look quite right — too stiff and too detailed, like everyone’s wearing a transparent plastic mask.
But the first flight is inspired. See balding pirate lifer Mohamed soar away from the sun-baked poverty of Somalia. Suddenly he’s flying, his arms thrust out and now feathered over, the sea pitching calmly far below. A cargo ship scuds along, the size of a bath toy, its boxcar-like storage bins packed tight as Tetris blocks. That ship gets no bigger as Mohamed, now a bird rather than a man, descends to it, talons extended. He seizes it, crushes it, master of sky and sea and everything else.
In real life, Mohamed is master of just one thing: the money he’s racked up hijacking ships. That’s enough to get him an SUV, plenty of the khat he chews, and a belly that swells out farther than most of his countrymen’s. It’s also won him a betrothal to the daughter of a respected citizen of Garoowe, but on one condition: If he ever again goes pirate, the new wife will leave him. These scenes, with real faces, prove deeply arresting. Have you ever seen a pirate’s father vow that his son has learned the error of his ways and embraced God, all while you know the pirate himself is still dreaming of swooping down on toylike ships?
Mohamed wants a life of wealth and respect, but he doesn’t have much money left after the marriage. He buys her a house, and then, just a week or so after a lively wedding, Mohamed once again takes to the sea, over his wife’s objections. Before he goes, he asks her if she would prefer he go back to work in the stone quarry instead. “Yes,” she says, reasonably, a little shy in front of the camera.
The film mixes raw footage of actual events with staged scenes that get at something trickier — how Mohamed sees himself and wants us to see him. All that’s effective enough that it’s disappointing when Mohamed’s dilemma is illustrated with wholly unnecessary cartooning: An animated figure of the wife disintegrates, replaced by a gun-wielding pirate.
The filmmakers have gotten extraordinary access to Mohamed and ravaged Somalia. They never film a pirate raid, of course, and no reasonable viewer would expect them to. But it’s disappointing that they did not capture more scenes of Mohamed’s wife and her family, who in the end are the ones who make the most momentous decision. Still, the film goes even further than Cutter Hodierne’s excellent Fishing Without Nets in laying bare just what it is that will drive a man — and a country — to such extremes.