With the news of recent kidnappings along the Kenyan-Somali border I had high hopes for The Pirate Tapes (Directed by Matvei Zhivov, Roger Singh, Andrew Moniz, Rock Baijnauth). The synopsis of the documentary said we would follow Somali-Canadian Mohamed Ashareh as he infiltrated a pirate gang. This was the type of documentary that took us deep into an unbelievable world, brought us dangerously close to current affairs. I was ready for the film to be strictly observational and difficult to watch in every sense (lots of undercover footage filmed at night).
But when I arrived with a friend at the cinema 5 minutes after the film started I was surprised to find a nearly full house laughing. The Pirate Tapes seemed to fall into that category of social issue films that feel uncomfortable and inadequate being themselves. The filmmakers compensate by framing a serious issue with entertainment – in this case, self-deprecating narration, music, stylish fonts and graphics.
For me it didn’t work. Partly perhaps because I had unrealistic expectations but partly because there were two underdeveloped narrative strands to the film. The ‘subjective’ one told of Mohamed’s mission to gain the trust of a pirate gang and the more ‘objective’ one was comprised of experts talking about the rise of piracy in Somali. Their view – as far as I could make out – was that it coincided with illegal fishing and toxic dumping. But I can’t be sure of understanding exactly what the filmmakers wanted me to because as soon as I settled down into a scene the filmmakers cut away to a new one.
I looked over at my friend. He was asleep. In front of us a man began talking. His voice, though quiet, was uncontained. Heads turned around him and for a fleeting moment I felt enough frustration to tell him to stop. But I acknowledged the moment, let it pass, and felt relieved when he took the stage to speak as part of the post-film panel that I had said nothing.
Why didn’t the filmmakers stick to one strand? I had a sense that Mohamed’s role in the film, no doubt incredibly brave, failed for obvious reasons to yield enough visual material needed to tell his story. And so Mohamed’s strand was forced to focus on his almost comedic efforts to become trusted by the pirates and then after he was captured, on his efforts to find a way back to Canada alive.
No doubt there were striking images in the film – namely those showing the cavalier way in which guns were slung across bodies at all times of the day, in any social situation. And there were striking statistics too, contextualizing the amount of money pirates stood to earn compared to the wages of the average Somali. But despite this I left the cinema unsatisfied. As my friend said on the way out: Something was missing.
To read more about the film, and to watch a trailer as well as a short video on the history of piracy, visit the website: http://www.thepiratetapes.com/credits.html.