Last Hijack is about piracy and pirates. This makes it surprisingly different from the last few major movies that address the subject, including A Hijacking and Captain Phillips. While they all try to maintain a balance between their Western protagonists and East African hijackers, none of them turn out to be films about pirates. They are, rather, about the victims in floating behemoths of commerce.
Directors Tommy Pallotta and Femke Wolting shift the focus from the high seas to the coast of Somalia. Their project is in two pieces, a theatrical film and an interactive online component. The latter is essentially an artistic and informational supplement. The feature, on the other hand, zooms in on the life of a single pirate. His name is Mohamed, and he is at a crossroads. Hijackings have led him to both financial success and personal destruction. He has ruined multiple marriages, and his many children live with his parents, where he rarely sees them. Now he has been offered another marriage and a chance at redemption. The bride and her parents have agreed to this union on the condition that he swear never to participate in another act of piracy.
The documentary underlines the appeal of piracy by interrupting the testimony of Mohamed and his family with breathtaking animated sequences. These computer-generated images, reminiscent of video games, explore the psychological dimensions of piracy. They are fantasies as well as reconstructions, memories that have become dreams. A small boat of pirates transforms into an enormous eagle, soaring over the Indian Ocean in pursuit of passing commercial ships. Giant tankers are suddenly the size of toys, easily snatched up in the talons of this idealized symbol of dangerous freedom.
The rush is overwhelming, particularly when compared with the reality of these hijackings. The European shipping vessels really are that big, dwarfing the tiny boats that are used to capture them. The exhilaration of such a David versus Goliath victory can only be expressed through fantasy. It’s like a drug. Mohamed’s parents speak of his career as a pirate in much the same terms as we are used to hearing in American films about narcotics. His abandoned children, his halfhearted insistence that he’ll quit in order to be married again, the petulance with which he responds to criticism of this dangerous and illegal lifestyle all evoke addiction.
Pallotta and Wolting also emphasize the way that this problem has afflicted society at large. A particular highlight is a journalist named Abdifatah Omar Geedi, editor-in-chief at Radio Daljir and host of a regular program that advocates against piracy. On the whole, though, the theatrical Last Hijack film is built around the intimate familial and psychological impact of hijackings on those who perpetrate them. The wider context is left to the interactive component, a fascinating addition that adds to the experience without taking away from the theatrical release’s viability as a work of cinematic art.
The interactive piece, which can be found at lasthijack.submarinechannel.com, is a beautifully rendered collection of supplemental materials. Built from extra footage of interviews used in the film as well as entirely separate material, it is a series of brief videos supplemented by still illustrations. The website offers multiple approaches, including a narrative path that details the chronology of a single 2008 hijacking as told by Mohamed and the British captain of the cargo ship. Pallotta and Wolting choose not to feature an individual hijacking event in the theatrical film, perhaps in order to avoid sensationalism, but it is easier to mediate that problem with this series of “choose your own adventure” videos.
Also included are the testimony of a Kenyan lawyer and British “security expert,” more from Geedi and emotional context given by the British captain’s wife. Infographics are also available, detailing the entire history of Somalia as well as the economic and political details of piracy in the last decade. It is a treasure trove of information. While there are certainly other ways to manage the relationship between interactive documentaries and their theatrical partners, Pallotta and Wolting have built up an incredibly effective partnership between necessarily cinematic psychological portraiture and in-depth, informative context online.
This review was originally published on October 2, 2014.