The Doc Option: Before ‘Captain Phillips’ Watch ‘Stolen Seas’

stolen seas

Somali piracy is a hot topic of late. Captain Phillips, directed by Paul Greengrass and starring Tom Hanks, is only the latest of several movies to come out this year alone that deals with the subject. Danish import A Hijacking also made waves with its release, while the subject of today’s Doc Option didn’t leave much of an impression when it quietly premiered in January. Nonetheless, Stolen Seas is a greatly informative picture of this issue, especially for anyone who only knows of it through Time magazine articles and the like.

It’s easy to see why the story of the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama, which Captain Phillips dramatizes, has captured so much public attention, while the hundreds of other individual acts of piracy off the Somali coast have gone relatively ignored. Most of these hijackings end with the hostages released through bloodless negotiation, which Hollywood teaches us is “boring.” In contrast, this particular situation ended with Navy SEALS swooping in and a whiz-bang action movie end to the hostilities.

Just as we saw in the aftermath of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, it didn’t take long for cable television to also churn out quickie infodocs about this event, such as Somali Pirate Takedown: The Real Story (streaming on Netflix). But Stolen Seas — already previously recommended here on Nonfics via Zal Batmanglij’s top 10 doc list — makes a better companion to Captain Phillips, even though it focuses on a different incident, because it goes into the circumstances that shape this phenomenon.

Piracy in Somalia isn’t so much an isolated problem as it is a symptom of globalization. Somalia’s position on the Gulf of Aden, the entrance to the Red Sea and thus a vital avenue for Middle Eastern business concerns, has made it a target of outside forces since the Cold War. The Soviet-backed government relocated hundreds of thousands of people to the coast, turning a formerly camel-herding population into fishermen. And then the cargo and fishing ships of other nations completely took over those waters, leaving these people with no source of income. Combine this with the general unrest that’s run rife through the country because of a civil war that’s been raging for more than 20 years, and you have the perfect recipe for desperate men grabbing machine guns, boarding vessels, and demanding ransoms.


Stolen Seas lays out this context for the actions of Somali pirates, not to excuse or justify their actions, but to explain them. When people think of pirates, they usually think of a romantic, Jack Sparrow-like vision of swashbuckling. Understanding the grim reality of the situation is imperative, especially since it also makes clear why international efforts to fight piracy have been failing. As is usual of the west, the United States and other countries have tried to protect their interests by throwing the military at the problem, dumping warships into the Gulf. But there are far more ships at risk than can possibly be protected. The best option for combating piracy, the film suggests, is actually aiding the people of Somalia. But that’s not a very whiz-bang Hollywood solution.

The doc is structured around the 2008 hijacking of the CEC Future and the negotiations between the Danish firm that owns the ship and the pirates. Director Thymaya Payne cobbles together this story from in-the-moment interviews and footage of the CEC negotiators, home video shot by the pirates and their hostages, and a few reconstructed elements. The result is rather seamless, a terrific example of blending the real and the unreal to convey how all the various players felt during the ordeal. We see the frustration and strategizing of CEC CEO Per Gullestrup, the terror of hostage Nozhkin, and the tension in Ishmael Ali, an outsider whom the pirates hired as a negotiator.

The strangest aspect of this piracy trend is how businesslike it is. Ali is determinedly separate from the pirates, a contractor just doing his job. Even the pirates see themselves as conducting their jobs. And given that piracy costs companies billions of dollars each year and can yield ransoms in the millions for the hostage-takers, this makes a perverse amount of sense. The fact that many shipping corporations register their vessels under “flags of convenience” in order to take advantage of other countries’ laxer regulations only complicates the matter further.

Stolen Seas is a great example of taking a singular event and unwrapping it to point to the larger confluence of factors that help an audience understand why it’s happened. It also manages the rare feat of acting mainly as a deliverer of information, but in the process becoming more than just a basic primer on an issue. It does so by finding the humanity in everyone involved in this, both victims and victimizers (and the victimizers of the victimizers). It gives the facts on the subject while remaining open-ended, suggesting no easy solutions and leaving plenty for viewers to digest, hopefully before they go on to explore the subject further.

Captain Phillips may or may not be a good prospect for doing so, though it’s gotten mostly positive reviews so far. In any case, Stolen Seas is a great place to start for anyone who wants to properly understand why the Maersk Alabama was hijacked in the first place.

You can find this week’s Doc Option on iTunes and streaming on Amazon. First, check out the trailer below.

LA-based writer about movies, TV, and other assorted culture stuff. Work collected at