“It’s fun being a pirate,” says Mohamed, the subject of Last Hijack, an innovative, illuminating documentary about the culture of piracy in Somalia. Co-directors Femke Wolting and Tommy Pallotta follow Mohamed through the planning process of hijacking one of the cargo ships that pass through the most treacherous waterway in the world. The filmmakers are given extraordinary access to a situation that’s usually glimpsed only through news footage, or from the re-creations of a film like Captain Phillips. Last Hijack tells the story from the pirate’s perspective, mixing documentary footage, interviews, and gorgeous, terrifying animation to take viewers into places that cameras could never go.
Mohamed is an opaque interview subject. He likes the money and perks of piracy, and that’s about all he’s willing to say. The first animated sequence shows him turning into a mammoth bird of prey, swooping down on a cargo ship from above, grabbing it with its talons, and carrying it off. The animation presents Mohamed’s self-perception, as well as turning him into a vision from out of a nightmare. Pallotta (a producer on Richard Linklater’s Waking Life) and Wolting move back and forth through the different styles with ease and confidence.
Mohamed says the money he makes as a pirate turned him from “pauper to president” overnight. He’s a big shot now. Why would he give that up to go work in a stone quarry with his friends? Not that it’s easy money, mind: Piracy is dangerous and requires months of planning, as well as investors who will provide the weaponry and GPS equipment for the pirates’ motorboats. Mohamed is the leader, recruiting team members who aren’t reckless or trigger-happy. If all goes well, shots needn’t be fired at all. As he gets a haircut, the hairdresser tells him, “I want to be a pirate, too.” They’re like celebrities. Mohamed loves that. But Last Hijack gives the sense that the glory days are over. Many pirates are in jail or dead. Ships’ crews are ready to shoot them the second they board. Public opinion in Somalia is turning against piracy, especially when it involves recruiting teenagers.
Somalia is a war-torn country, wracked by years of tribal conflict, drought, and famine, and the young men, many of whom were fishermen, feel the irresistible lure of wealthy companies willing to pay exorbitant ransoms for hijacked ships. Mohamed tells the story of his first hijack, and how scared he was the night before it. The hijack is shown through animation, the pirates moving through the ship in the dead of night, all green and gloomy, looking for the crew. That first attack went well. Nobody died, and they were paid $1.85 million for the crew.
Mohamed’s parents speak to the camera with ease and openness. Both of them are devastated by Mohamed’s choice of profession. They beg him to stop. They are angry and embarrassed. Mohamed is engaged to be married to a woman who’s against piracy as well, and she tells him up front that she will ask for a divorce if he goes back to the ocean. These domestic dramas take up a large portion of the film, and as interesting as much of it is, Last Hijack goes a bit slack in some of those sections, losing its underlying formal charge.
In other sections, though, Mohamed’s childhood is shown through a series of animated scenes, like the flood and famine that ruined his childhood home. His family moved to the city just as tribal warfare erupted. The bare bones of the story are horrifying enough, but the animation turns them into an operatic agony of poverty and violence. The synthesized score, by the German band Kreidler, underlines the sense that the tragedy of Somalia is so all-encompassing, it approaches the level of myth.
Cinematographer Ahmed Farah (in his first screen credit) shows an eye for memorable images. Four pirates, holding gigantic automatic weapons, stroll over a white sand dune, the blue sky beyond them. Mohamed stands alone on the beach, holding a coil of rope, staring out at the blue-green waves crashing on the shore. At night, the pirates huddle on the beach around a fire, the roar of the surf a constant background noise. The intimacy of that scene alone is extraordinary. Outside Mohamed’s parents’ house, in the middle of a desolate desert, children play soccer, and little veiled girls laugh shyly, looking at the camera. Much of Last Hijack is achingly beautiful to look at, providing a stark contrast to the story presented.
One interview subject is a journalist who has created an anti-piracy organization, and set up a radio station to get the word out. The radio station has been attacked, with grenades thrown over the wall. He checks under his car every day for bombs. He drives a different route to work every day. Two of his fellow journalists (one of whom was his brother) were murdered. But he continues on with his advocacy. He has guests on his radio show, imams and educators, to talk about how the young men of Somalia need to see there is a better way. The radio station looks like it’s held together with duct tape and wire. It’s a fragile outpost of sanity in a world gone utterly mad.
Without the animated sequences, Last Hijack would have been a somewhat interesting, rare look inside a community that’s usually only seen from the outside. Mohamed’s claims about the draws of piracy—money, status, girls—are shallow ones. But the dark, surreal animation unearths the personal side of the story: its nightmarish aspect and traumas. It elevates the film into a portrait of an unspeakable tragedy. The animated scenes don’t excuse Mohamed’s behavior, but they do offer a poetic, contemplative explanation. No wonder an impoverished man who can’t scrape together a living wants to see himself as a looming, sharp-taloned bird of prey, whose shadow dwarfs the mammoth ships in the heaving sea below.