Has there been a more sudden, more surprising microgenre of films than the Somali Pirate Thriller? I can’t remember a time when three films released in the span of 18 months examined such a similar and specific subject. A Hijacking (disclosure: this reviewer's top film from 2013) explored the gut-wrenching decisions Danish shipping executives must consider from distant corporate offices. The loud and laborious Captain Phillips stayed at sea, depicting the confusing terror of a hijacking through the eyes of its heroic title character. American filmmaker Cutter Hodierne’s Fishing Without Nets slows things down considerably, rounding out the picture by meditating on the motives and fears of the pirates.
Film Society of Minneapolis/St Paul
Director: Cutter Hodierne
Producers: Ben Freedman, Brian Glazen, John Hibey, Cutter Hodierne, Stephanie Pinola, Victor Shapiro, Raphael Swann
Writers: Cutter Hodierne, John Hibey, David Burkman, Sam Cohan
Cinematographer: Alex Disenhof
Editor: Cutter Hodierne, Dominic LaPerriere
Music: Kevin Hilliard, Patrick Taylor
Cast: Abdikani Muktar, Abdi Siad, Abdiwali Farrah, Eric Gordon, Abdikhadir Hassan, Idil Ibrahim, Abdi Kani, Reda Kateb, Abu Bakr Mirre
Premiere: January 17, 2014 – Sundance Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: October 3, 2014
US Distributor: Drafthouse Films
Despite Fishing Without Nets arriving last, however, it was actually the first one to depart from port. Hodierne’s short version of the same film won an award at Sundance in 2012, and during the time that it took him to produce the feature length version, he had to watch the other two films pass him by in the open sea. Hodierne deserves credit for taking a fresh angle on the story, but comparison is inevitable considering the timing, and Fishing Without Nets unfortunately fails to achieve either the suspense or the urgency of A Hijacking or Captain Phillips. It also leaves viewers with no better understanding of the bigger picture behind the phenomenon of piracy in the region, and at its worst, reinforces negative stereotypes of Somalis in its attempt to “humanize” the pirates.
The film is not without its merit, however. A grittier and grimier production than its cinematic siblings, Fishing Without Nets feels the most true to life, a testament to the months Hodierne spent working with non-professional Somali actors in Kenya. The film is delicately shot with a laconic pace, and depicts, albeit bluntly, a culture and place that we don’t fully experience in the other films. Fishing Without Nets also benefits from viewers’ familiarity with the premise, allowing easier entry into the story as if watching the third film in a trilogy.
Our protagonist is Abdi (Abdikani Muktar), a young father in a coastal Somali town who comes from a line of honest, hard-working fishermen. Illegal overfishing and waste dumping from foreign vessels along the country’s coastline has destroyed the local fishing industry (Hodierne frustratingly gives this critical context one line of dialogue and never revisits it), and Abdi’s friends have long since traded in their fishing poles for rusty Kalashnikovs. While they sit around chewing khat and telling jokes between hijackings, Abdi remains hopeful he can somehow provide a better future for his beautiful wife and toddler son—without resorting to a life of crime. Eventually Abdi tires of watching his son go hungry, however, and the easy money he sees the pirates bringing in becomes too tempting to resist.
Muktar’s acting debut is a marvel, just as impressive as Barkhad Abdi’s Oscar-nominated turn as the pirate Muse in Captain Phillips. Muktar is a brilliant casting choice for the main role, with a sad face that elicits sympathy from the audience, even when—especially when—he’s breaking our hearts with his behavior. In an interesting character arc, Abdi in Fishing Without Nets shows how Muse may have started out years earlier, reluctant and fearful, recklessly joining a criminal enterprise he knew nothing about. As Fishing Without Nets moves beyond its relatively staid hijacking scene, however, the film begins to lose its initial commitment to Abdi’s story.
There’s infighting among the hotheaded pirates and the always crude calculus of which hostages are worth more than others (one memorable scene turns the European trade of African slaves on its head), but little new insight to gain into the pirates’ motives. Hints at Islamic extremism are tossed in for no reason other than to reinforce Western paranoia, and the inevitable breakdown of the hostage negotiations culminates in a sudden yet predictable end. Abdi is present throughout all of this, but he becomes as much as passive observer as the viewers do for the second half of the film, tossed from one jarring scene to another.
Indeed, Fishing Without Nets is most revealing in its quietest moments: scenes of Abdi walking along dusty beach dunes, staring out at the sea, clumsily practicing how to assemble his weapon, and sitting silently as the assigned guard for a French hostage. In broken English, Abdi poignantly explains to the hostage that they are both in “jail”, trapped in a situation with no control of their fate. Tellingly, the film’s strongest scene involves reluctant abductor and weary abductee silently sharing a meal of bland pasta, sitting together but a world apart.
If Hodierne had successfully maintained this level of patience and focus on character throughout, Fishing Without Nets may indeed have been a more dull film—but also a more distinctive one. There are light suggestions as to why Somali piracy was so prevalent (it has since dramatically decreased, though piracy is on the rise now in Southeast Asian and West African ocean routes), but ultimately we’re left to our own conclusions about the deeper cultural and political reasons behind the phenomenon. Nonetheless, Fishing Without Nets may be the last Somali pirate movie that will be made, and it remains an important voice in the short-lived cinematic conversation about the issue.