10 Oct 2013

Somalia on screen – does it reflect real life?

Africa Correspondent

Tom Hanks’s latest film Captain Phillips focuses on a battle between two captains – one a Somali pirate. But does the Hollywood portrayal of Somalia piracy reflects real life?

Like in most Hollywood films, very early in Captain Phillips, the viewer is forced to choose between good and evil. Tom Hanks plays the eponymous hero, a middle-aged and decent-looking man.

The opening of the film shows the Captain, in a peaceful suburb of America, packing up his belongings; photos of his children on the wall, talk of education and his wife driving him to a location. A nice portrayl of blissful American life.

The other main character, Barkhad Abdi who plays Muse, the pirate captain is a scrappy, scary, crazy-looking man. The costume designers must have had an easy task. It is as if they just went through rubbish bins to dress the Somali actors.

All these are misrepresentations but, I suppose in the world of Hollywood, that is how they imagine Somalis look.

I realised it was going to be two hours of uncomfortable viewing. Having covered piracy, I mean real pirates (and some fake ones), this portrayal didn’t look like the reality I have seen. Somalis – and Somali pirates – wouldn’t be happy with the way this film depicts them.

Not all Somali pirates were born by the seaside and not every Somali is desperate to become a pirate. We see a group of men shouting loudly in all directions, in a frenzied state and raising their hands: “please hire me”. This is just not how it happens in Somalia.

Although it is a Hollywood movie, we need to believe the story to some extent. And I didn’t. Real pirate leaders do not turn up to random coastal villages and just hire people.

The hiring takes a long time and is a difficult process. In most cases the team comes from the same clan and trust is the key. After all, these people are going on a dangerous mission together so they have to know each other very well.

The other thing missing for me was the motivations behind piracy in Somalia. Paul Greengrass wasn’t interested in exploring what drives these men into this criminal activity .

I don’t expect Hollywood to make viewers sympathise with Somali pirates – but it would have helped to try and understand the phenomenon in all its complexity as well as understand the impact on the people and country itself.

All you see are men craving to become criminals of the high seas. What you don’t see is how the locals fight against them.

The build up to the hijack is tense. “Let’s tighten up security,” the captain orders his staff. Not long after that they start a drill but it almost becomes a reality. The pirates get close but turn away after one of their boats breaks down.

The story humanises a member of the crew who demands a pay rise. He felt that he’s not paid well enough only to get kidnapped by Somali pirates.

The Somali pirates do not give up. They come back the next morning. And the struggle between the two captains over the control of the ship is breath-taking. Pirates’ determination overcomes all the turns and tricks tried by the American captain.

“Somali coastguard. We are here to help you,” announced Muse over the radio communication. Resigning to the situation, Captain Phillips instructs his crew “to stick together” and decides not to move the ship. His aim was to wait there until help arrives.

Eventually pirates board the ship and the psychological battle begins. The two captains look eye to eye with respect but quickly Muse and his crew, with the exception of the youngest member of the team, become violent. I was not convinced by this characterisation.

Captain Muse demands to know where the rest of the crew are but they are hiding somewhere in this vast ship.

I know Hollywood’s role is to sell America to the world but surely; they don’t have to demonise Somalis to that extent. First it was the Black Hawk Down and now Captain Phillips.