Last Hijack (2014)
Director: Tommy Pallotta, Femke Wolting
Country: Netherlands | Germany | Ireland | Belgium
Genre: Documentary | Animation
Put a face on it. This maxim of journalism classes and newsrooms is often the chief ambition of an issue-based documentary. Where daily news accounts can speak to a phenomenon at large, an on-the-ground documentary can turn the abstract players involved into real people. Last Hijack, which screened earlier this week as part of the New York Film Festival’s Convergence lineup, seeks to put a face on Somali piracy with its portrait of a single pirate in the town of Eyl.
The filmmakers have chosen a curious face in Mohamed, a crass absentee father who went “from pauper to president” after he began hijacking cargo ships for money. Mohamed drives around town like a self-styled king and says things like “If your wife starts complaining, you divorce her with a text message.” His parents plead for him to give up piracy, to which he replies simply, “It’s fun being a pirate.” Last Hijack charts his reluctance to sacrifice a lucrative and electric life as a pirate to become a husband and father.
Mohamed is Walter White of “Breaking Bad,” complete with an abandoned family that begs him to end his obsession. We never get below the surface with Mohamed; all we get is an archetype.
The film was co-directed by Tommy Pallotta, a producer on Richard Linklater’s rotoscoped pictures (A Scanner Darkly, Waking Life). As such, it sprinkles bits of fantastical animation within the mix of interviews and footage of Mohamed and his circle of fellow pirates and family members.
Documentaries like Last Hijack have the power to complicate our views on subjects that don’t get much nuance in the media. A complex portrait of a Somali pirate could do some good in this world. Last Hijack isn’t that movie, however. It doesn’t show the human being beneath the villainized other, nor does it really express what drives droves of men into piracy. Instead, it offers up a cliché: a swaggering anti-hero addicted to a dangerous job and the money and power that comes with it. Mohamed is Walter White of “Breaking Bad,” complete with an abandoned family that begs him to end his obsession. We never get below the surface with Mohamed; all we get is an archetype. The film places him in a very familiar narrative mold, which leaves me to wonder: why make a documentary that simply confirms our pre-held beliefs that Somali pirates are ruthless assholes?
You’d make it, I suppose, if you had some extraordinary footage of your subject. For the most part, Last Hijack doesn’t. We see people talk about piracy at great length, but the planning, execution, and aftermath of an attack remains abstract to us. The film visualizes the hijackings along with Mohamed’s flashbacks and fears through animation sequences. As a work-around, this technique distinguishes Last Hijack from films like 2012’s Stolen Seas. The animation lacks much energy or expressiveness, however; faces look dead-eyed or lifeless when you’d imagine they’re meant to convey much stronger emotions.
The film’s penchant to tell rather than show speaks to its overall lack of rising action. Save for Mohamed’s wedding, it seems like not a lot happened during the filming of Last Hijack.
There are exceptions, of course, to the dearth of compelling footage. The look of profound boredom on Mohamed’s face at his own wedding ceremony tells us everything we know about the man in just a few seconds. Elsewhere, an interview with an anti-piracy activist becomes a primer on the intimidation tactics of Somali pirates when the subject gets a series of menacing phone calls on camera. Pallotta and co-director Femke Wolting capture the occasional moment of spontaneity or tension in Last Hijack. More often, though, they’re content to give us artfully filmed scenes of people talking about the things we really wish to see.
The film’s penchant to tell rather than show speaks to its overall lack of rising action. Save for Mohamed’s wedding, it seems like not a lot happened during the filming of Last Hijack. The central struggle – a life of crime versus domesticity – is all internal, not to mention pretty shopworn. The documentary doesn’t build to any real narrative incident (its title is a misnomer meant to trick you into mistaking it for a “one last score” heist movie). The climactic event feels like the start of the film’s second act. Instead it just ends.
Pallotta and Wolting’s reliance on the anti-hero archetype is the key misstep here. Unconventional in style but very conventional in substance, the film uses a narrative template we already know to tell us little we haven’t heard before.
Unconventional in style but very conventional in substance, Last Hijack turns its central subject into an archetypal anti-hero. The narrative beats feel very familiar in this documentary look into the life of a Somali pirate. You’re left longing for a portrait of piracy that doesn’t abide by the rules of a shopworn genre.