For some, the subject of piracy on the open sea conjures romantic images of Errol Flynn or Capt. Jack Sparrow, while others picture recent news coverage of Somalis rerouting passing freighters. The reality is far more complex, as director Thymaya Payne reveals in the riveting “Stolen Seas,” a dense, sometimes dangerous 90-minute immersion in a world where lawlessness applies to all sides and, shockingly, international shipping companies would rather pay the ransoms than address the underlying problems. Under-reported on the fest circuit, this daring docu should spark domestic attention after playing Gotham on Jan. 18.
In his attempt to get at all sides of the often-oversimplified issue, Payne dives head-first into the fray, making contact with all parties involved in a specific hijacking, the 2008 taking of a Danish steel freighter, the CEC Future. His in-person sources include ship owner Per Gullestrup, who seems to view the vessel’s 70-day seizure as the cost of doing business; Somali translator Ishmael Ali, who served as go-between; and a number of actual pirates, whom Payne gives digital cameras to self-document.
Armed with audio recordings of the negotiations, photographs of rocket launcher-toting Somalis snapped onboard the ship and shaky firsthand video from this and other incidents, Payne manages to construct what could have been a mere talking-head doc into something visceral, immediate and in many ways illicit. Brisk editing between hi-def, shallow-focus primary footage and digitally degraded B-roll invokes another sort of piracy, as if audiences are watching a bootleg insider version of events, something that was never meant to get out.
Perhaps it wasn’t. Much of the media conversation around Somali piracy has been angled to distract from bigger issues, including lingering poverty and political unrest in Africa, international abuse of ungoverned seas (the CEC Future sailed under a Bahamian “flag of convenience” to avoid Danish regulations), and military policy that exploits domestic alarm over such far-off crimes to trot out its latest war toys. “Stolen Seas” gathers an impressive array of articulate experts on such subjects, cramming everything from Somali history to ethical introspection — everyone who buys imported fish and goods is implicated — into a head-spinning, pulse-pounding thriller.
Assembled from three years’ worth of visits to one of the world’s most volatile hot zones, the format of “Stolen Seas” is as every bit as exciting as its content, raising beguiling questions about how the team managed to acquire the footage so stunningly interwoven by editor Garret Price — some of which was clearly restaged, though more is authentic than one might expect, given Payne’s tactic of letting the pirates film themselves. (Oddly, both this and recent Danish drama “A Hijacking,” which was inspired by the same incident, blur the lines between documentary and re-enactment; the two films would make a fascinating double bill.) Whereas many docs assert the solid moral ground on which they stand, this one may as well be adrift in search of answers, its allegiances churning with each new twist as it reveals corruption and compromise on all sides.
The film’s most intriguing character is Somali translator Ali, whom the film positions as a tragic figure caught in the middle. Still, the only true innocents appear to be the hostages. The docu crew catches up with the well-compensated Ali back home among his camels, where he matter-of-factly reflects on his involvement in what one source calls “the perfect crime,” since shippers rely on the same lack of regulation that often allows them to be raided. And so the film reveals just how little the world understands about piracy, especially now that its practitioners have traded their cutlasses for Kalashnikovs, using their booty to live like rap-video stars.