You’ve seen this story before, maybe twice: Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips and the Danish A Hijacking. Cutter Hodierne’s tale of Somali pirates seizing a small, empty oil tanker will seem familiar to viewers of those fine films. The key difference here, however, is a mostly Somali perspective—from a fisherman hero who knows better than to join a hijacking crew, but who needs the money to feed his family. Abdi (Abdikani Muktar) expresses such thoughts in voiceover, repeatedly casting back in memory as the thriller advances toward bloodshed, contrasting his contented past life with his new role as hired gunman.
Abdi speaks a few friendly words of English to the captive French crewman—Reda Kateb, from A Prophet—with whom he plays bottle-cap checkers, but the language and culture barriers totally divide pirates and hostages. The Somali cast are all non-actors (some who appeared in Hodierne’s prior short, expanded into this Sundance prize-winner), their dialogue all subtitled to us. We never see the other side of the ransom negotiations; Abdi’s as much in the dark as we are, a cog who gradually realizes that he’s traded one profession, fishing, for a lower station in another. “This is a business,” one of his bosses declares. “The hostages are the product.” (The gang’s leader is known as Mr. Chairman.) After weeks of unprofitable negotiation, the gang tries to sell the French sailor to another crew. He’s physically prodded and inspected like a slave, the skin colors reversed in this discomfiting mercantile inspection.
Shooting in widescreen on the Kenyan coast, Hodierne creates an almost documentary-like sense of place and culture. Abdi wanders a sandy landscape that’s gradually being depopulated: His wife and son have joined a smuggler’s caravan to Yemen, looking for better prospects, as he is. Were they safe, these beaches might cater to tourists, but the land is littered with trash and ruled by AK-47s. If the Somalia unsparingly depicted here isn’t in a state of civil war, the wrecked economy is no less destructive. “Our nets are coming up empty,” says Abdi. Losing his vocation makes an honest man desperate—like the poor Italian searching for his wheels in The Bicycle Thief. Runs Fri., Oct. 17–Thurs., Oct. 23 at SIFF Film Center. Rated R. 109 minutes.