In a world where abstract emotions like fear and terror have been distorted to mobilise society against an invisible foe, pirates have become the latest bogeymen of Western cinema. In Tommy Pallotta and Femke Wolting’s Last Hijack (2014), we’re offered the opportunity to explore behind the headlines and experience the world from the pirate’s perspective. Opening on a fisherman readying his line, Last Hijack gracefully switches from documentary footage to animated surrealism. The man whisks his hook into the air and zooms up with it into the sky. He transforms into a giant bird of prey, stretching its feathered wings before swooping down onto a cargo ship and carrying it away in its gigantic talons.
It’s a fitting allegory for the fishermen who took to the seas in search of reparation after foreign trawlers destroyed their fishing nets and disrupted the fragile ecosystem that had previously provided their livelihood. Last Hijack tells the story of Mohamed, a pirate who at the behest of his family, and the father of his future wife, has reluctantly decided to quit his life of crime. Exploring the daily life of this former pirate, alongside illustrated re-enactments of his past, we begin to put together an image of why piracy has become such a phenomenon in Somalia. Sadly, the harsh reality of making an honest living in Somalia means that even though Mohamed has witnessed first-hand the human cost of piracy, he remains drawn to the financial rewards and swashbuckling excitement of an illicit life on the high seas.
Over the past few years, films like A Hijacking (2012) and Captain Phillips (2013) have presented the threat of piracy in very different ways. However, neither have truly explored the conditions that forced their antagonists into such a radical vocation. Like the Native Americans of early Hollywood westerns, or the Russian villains of Cold War action thrillers, the agency of a Somali pirate is often overlooked. Aiming to add flesh and bones to the reductive image of the pirates, Last Hijack gives a voice to a group all too often presented as a collective threat. Hulsing’s painterly illustrations give the film a touch of cinematic flair, whilst also allowing the audience to detach the man from the crime by illuminating the disconnect between Mohamed’s real life and his previous one.
Sadly, Mohamed is far too unsympathetic a character for the film’s message to resonate. Obsessed with money and fame, he’s well-known amongst his local community, yet struggles to recognise his own children when he visits his parents. While he’s a fitting metaphor for the corruptibility of wealth, he’s hardly the spokesman the film requires. There is an unfortunate sense that it would benefit greatly from widening its scope and spending less time with Mohamed and more time scrutinising the murky world behind piracy and why men like him are willing to risk their lives. Whilst Last Hijack gives a face to these desperate souls, we learn very little about what goes on beyond their trade, ultimately leaving the viewer with far more questions than answers.
Sheffield Doc/Fest takes place from 7-12 June 2014. For more of our Sheffield Doc/Fest coverage, follow this link.