EVERYBODY told Tommy Pallotta he was crazy to want to go to Africa and shoot a documentary about Somali pirates. In the end, the respected director found himself in agreement.
“Originally, the situation in Somalia wasn’t that bad and the plan was for me to be there, personally,” says the Texas filmmaker, best known for his collaborations with Richard Linklater (he was a producer of Linklater’s acclaimed animated features Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly).
“By the time we had funding in place, it had grown worse. The American government advised me against going; they said they wouldn’t do anything to help me. I was uninsurable; the people funding the movie couldn’t back it if I was not insured. The alternative was to go with armed guards, but you aren’t going to get intimate stories out of people if you’re surrounded by 20 men with guns at all times.”
Instead, Pallotta worked remotely, contracting a pair of on-the-ground cameraman in Mogadishu, while he oversaw the project from afar. The result is the eerie and dislocated new documentary Last Hijack, ostensibly the study of one individual pirate in the world’s most lawless country, but in truth, the portrait of a poverty-ravaged state in a condition of perpetual collapse.
The emotional impact of the film is ratcheted further through animation by Dublin’s Piranha Bar studio. The technique allowed Pallotta to recreate scenes — such as a dramatic raid on a cargo vessel — that would have been impossible to capture on camera.
“We thought we were going to get two pirates, an older one and a younger, less-experienced guy just getting into it. It was a very lengthy process. There is a whole industry over there of fake pirates: People who make a living from appearing in news clips and are paid just to stay stuff. It’s hard, because the real pirates often don’t wish to speak. They’re afraid that if they ever leave Somalia they’ll be arrested.”
Pallotta finally found his subject in Mohammad, an experienced pirate who, on screen, comes across as phlegmatic about his choice of career. We see him matter-of-factly planning his next raid and reflecting on the rewards reaped by previous forays onto the open ocean. It is a chilling portrait of an ordinary man who has done apparently terrible things.
“Mohammad is a tricky character,” says Pallotta. “I had mixed emotions about him, as a filmmaker. My feelings changed quite a bit along the way.”
Piracy has become Somalia’s best-known export, costing the shipping industry some $7bn in lost cargo and insurance hikes in 2011 alone, but the situation was not black and white, Pallotta suspected. Somalis claim piracy was forced upon them as the fishing reserves were decimated by foreign trawlers, but there has recently been a backlash against pirates, seen by many as bringing further instability to a country without anything approaching a functioning government since the bitter civil war of the early 1990s.
“Every year, a list is published of the year’s most under-reported stories,” says Pallotta. “Several years ago, I saw piracy feature. I didn’t know anything about it. I had this romantic notion of pirates from movies. We never heard anything from the perspective of the pirates in Somalia. I was reading a lot of things about illegal fishing and I wondered why people would go to such extremes. You see these guys in pretty small fishing boats taking on these giant cargo ships. It struck me as a story of simple survival. What would any of us do in those circumstances?”
It was while Pallotta was trying to put funding together that Tom Hanks and Paul Greengrass made Captain Phillips, a recounting of a real-life hijacking, with the Somali pirates as one-dimensional bad-guys.
“A Hollywood movie is always going to rely heavily on the perspective of the character played by the lead character,” says Pallotta (in the film Hanks is the eponymous captain of the captured vessel). “That’s the way Hollywood works. The reality of the situation isn’t black and white.”
Attitudes towards piracy in Somalia had begun to shift during shooting of the documentary.
“At the start, it brought an influx of cash and was regarded as this non-violent thing. Then, it started to turn violent and attitudes changed. We had trouble filming Mohammad, because people were throwing rocks.”
Shadowing Mohammad during a raid at sea was, naturally, impossible. This is where Piranha Studios stepped in, bringing to life haunting still-life portraits of the pirate originally created by artists Hisko Hulsing (Montage of Heck) and Aaron Sacco (A Scanner Darkly).
“Tommy understood that our studio was interested in developing and pushing new looks and technology rather than emulating things that had been done before. He really wanted an organic look for the animation,” says Piranha Bar’s Gavin Kelly. “The budget and timescale necessitated the use of digital tools. Creating computer animation with a hand-painted feel is extremely difficult; these two areas don’t play well together. We had to develop a complex pipeline, from 3-D animation to multilayered compositing, which gave the computer animation an illustrated look.”
The style matches the content of the scenes.
“Mohammed is haunted by memories of his past and, by visualising the traumas he lived through, we gain a deeper understanding of his choices in the present day. As memory itself is subjective, biased and sometimes fabricated, fluid and painted animation is the perfect medium to represent the shifting sands of our mind’s eye.”
The biggest surprise for Pallotta was that, despite the chaos and lawlessness, the people of Somalia had found a way to get on with life.
“I thought it was going to be dystopian, like Mad Max, and, in a way, it is. In other ways it isn’t at all. They have a clan-based culture and it was interesting to see how order imposed itself over chaos. I found that to be very optimistic.”