Based on the writings and adventures of best selling journalist Jay Bahadur, Pirates of Somalia is an enthralling ride into the reality of Somalia’s pirates, seen from the shores of a nation pillaged by foreign corporations. This film is a far cry from the dichotomies of Captain Philips and the media’s ennobling of Americans in stark contrast to the barbarism of the Somalis.
On the heels of his Academy Award nomination for Asad, director Bryan Buckley revisits Somalia through the eyes of a Canadian rookie writer risking it all to break through as a journalist. With the ambitious approach of revealing the country’s challenges through the lives and actions of its pirates, he brings to life the humanity and the complexity of a nation plundered by foreign vessels illegally depleting its rich natural maritime resources. Losing their source of income, fishermen took up piracy for sustenance, and while they conducted their “transactions” without ever killing anyone, they were nevertheless represented as terrorists by the media. Actor Evan Peters fully inhabits Bahadur’s character in an emotionally ranging performance, and Barkhad Abdi, who received an Academy Award for his role as a pirate in Captain Philips, guides Evan/Jay through the streets and customs of a culture little known by the public at large.
CYNTHIA BIRET: Did you start planning for this film while you were making Asad? How did you get involved into this story?
BRYAN BUCKLEY: It was a process. I had done some work originally for UNHCR–The United Nations High Commission for Refugees–and they asked me to come in and do a documentary to help show values to refugees. This particular camp where we went to originally, camp Kakuma, located in northern Kenya and primarily occupied by southern Sudanese; people stayed there for an average of 17 years, and the commission found that the docs they were doing weren’t opening enough eyes from the outside world. A lot of Somali refugees coming from southern Sudan were returning after civil war in 2011, and they were coming to the camp by the thousands because of famine, of Al-Shabab attacks, etc. At the time, I knew nothing about the Somalis. UNHCR had double booked the doc teams, and the BBC was covering the same doc as us, and they said that they did not know much about Somalia or the pirates because they were not allowed in there. It was just too dangerous with reporters getting kidnapped and killed all the time. I ended up staying with a Somali family there at the camp, and just fell in love with the people.
BIRET: What was the focus of the short documentary?
BUCKLEY: The doc’s idea was about Luol Deng, the famous basketball player. He was going back to Sudan to help the Lost Boys of Sudan, and we were supposed to film this wonderful kind of moment with him, and it just ended up kind of caught in bureaucracy. At the end of the day, we just couldn’t get the type of material that was moving enough. The film was called No Autographs and was viewed by about 1500 people online. We were like, wow, all that work, and it did not find an audience. In the end, it got watered down because the UN can only say certain things; they can’t bring up kind of hot-button topics.
BIRET: Did this realization inspire you to do Asad?
BUCKLEY: Yes. I thought, ok, I’ve got to move outside the system. With Asad I focused on the Somali side of the story, and decided to train refugees as actors. The two main kids in the story were completely illiterate because they never had access to education. They memorized the script, and with the chief of the local township we created the kind of narrative I would have done in the documentary. When you put the perception of acting on top of refugees, all of a sudden it’s like, wow, they are really smart and they are telling a story and it’s no longer my hand-out, a sympathy thing, but instead these people can actually contribute.
BIRET: Did Asad have a positive impact on the refugees?
BUCKLEY: Archbishop Desmond Tutu ended up doing a big speech on how the work that we did helped stop xenophobia, which was rampant down there because Somalis weren’t being accepted into the South African culture, and suddenly they had a film that got an Oscar nomination that was completely made with Somali refugees. It was kind of Mandela’s dream that people would come to a nation and contribute like these people could, and the film was suddenly on a worldwide platform. That was for me the power of what a film could do.
BIRET: When did you become familiar with Jay Bahadur ?
BUCKLEY: At the time, there was only one book available for me to find out about Somalian culture, and about pirates. It was Pirates of Somalia: Inside Their Hidden World, written by Jay Bahadur. Here is a book that hit the bestseller list, written by a 23 year-old who I’m watching being interviewed on the Daily Show, and Hollywood hadn’t even taken interest. It was crazy. If anything, it gave me a strong indication of how little interest people have in Somalia.
BIRET: The book has very little information about Jay’s personal life. How did you decide to focus the story on Jay’s point of view?
BUCKLEY: The book is very dense reading material, and Jay doesn’t talk about himself, except maybe for the first chapter. It’s really about the facts in Somalia; it’s not necessarily about chasing down piracy. So I thought that we could talk about the culture through Jay’s inspirational story.
BIRET: He is such an interesting character. He is hesitant and at the same time very bold. He is scared, but still he goes for it. How did you develop his persona? Was his character based on meetings you had with him?
BUCKLEY: At the end of the film there is a meeting that takes place with the CIA. This happened in reality: He went there to do the meeting and then flew up to Toronto do our interview. Because we had a limited budget, we ended up using the Department of State’s plane ticket to fly him out, detouring him through Toronto, before sending him back overseas again. During the closing title sequence, you can see part of the interview with him. He was sick at the time, and he actually opened up more than he normally would about his personal life.
BIRET: How much of the revelations from his interview ended up in the film?
BUCKLEY: Honestly, there is so much truth that’s not in the book but revealed in the interview instead. He was living in the basement and took great pride in napkin research for supermarkets, and that part was not in the book. The conversation when he sat down to talk to his parents, that happened exactly the way it did. The phone rang in the middle of it, the security details; all that was real. At that point he told us that he was sort of nervous, but he didn’t really believe anything could happen to him. He is just one of these people with a fear factor of zero.
Anyone who sees this movie is not going to watch the news about Somalia the same way. They’re kind of like us: they were colonized, they rebelled, but they are just like us. Why do we hate them? We’re blindly hating them, and stating that they are terrorists without understanding the situation. In this case, Somalia is a victim of misunderstanding.
BIRET: The scene where he was almost mistaken for a CIA agent is pretty scary. Was this a true account?
BUCKLEY: That is all true. The reality of the scariness of Jay’s actions did not set in until he saw the movie. He said it was easily the most dangerous thing and added that it was the stupidest thing he ever did.
BIRET: Jay has a cameo appearance as a reporter executed by a pirate, and the scene is part of an eerie dream sequence inside the plane.
BUCKLEY: Jay had this dream sequence in the airplane in real life, which is in the book. So the first part of that dream has dead reporters everywhere, and then Evan looks through the plane window and sees Jay being shot outside.
BIRET: What’s interesting is that you chose to use graphics for the hijacking sequence, instead of live action. Did you do this to distance yourself from the sensationalism of Captain Philips?
BUCKLEY: When it came down to the actual animation, I felt it had been very well explored in both Captain Philips and the documentary. The big intent of this film is that you were incased in Jay’s head, his journey, and how the mind plays with things. Take 9/11 for example: buildings are collapsing and there are, like, crazy Starbucks sales that day; that’s how the mind works, it creates all types of weird stuff. I wanted to create something entertaining for our audience and at the same time sort of shock them into awareness. I was very into gangsters, and these guys were culturally relevant gangsters. I used Gorillaz Japanese Anime because in 2008 there were Japanese animations along the lines of what we did, so we would be swimming in Jay’s head in a way similar to that crazy pop culture.
BIRET: Was there any challenge with working with refugees?
BUCKLEY: We cast refugees off the marketplace and trained them. Evan knew that I was bringing him in with non-actors, and I told him that it was going to be deeper than anything he had experienced. He was at first concerned about security, but when he sat down with the Somalis, all that concern really washed away; he started singing with them and chewing khat (a local plant which is an amphetamine stimulant). It’s illegal, but you can’t avoid it because it’s a social thing. They stayed up all night, and laughter and talking was pretty much a routine. We overshot the goodbye scene just so he could take the time to say goodbye to everyone.
BIRET: Jay’s love interest, Maryan [Sabrina Hassan], has a subtle but unforgettable presence. She also makes a lot of references to American culture.
BUCKLEY: For her character, I took inspiration from the mother of the two boys in Asad. All her knowledge of film, of our culture, and how she spoke was based on American films. All pop culture American stuff finds its way into these countries, and those films inform these people as to how we see them, and also how they see us. So I thought it was so important to deliver “the vehicle” as a love interest. The core message was to show these people as they are. And the strength of the Somali women is incredible. There is a sense of honor, a sense of elegance. It’s amazing to me. During filming, no one could touch her, literally. She couldn’t break her custom, and I told her I would completely honor that.
The Pirates of Somalia trailer
BIRET: Did you create Al Pacino’s character as a way to ground Jay’s impulsive nature?
BUCKLEY: I just felt it was important to have this throw back of a different era of reporting, the kind of bold daring reporting that he was doing, and decided to create a character that was an older, wiser version of Jay. I built his personality from a neighbor I knew, a very outspoken individual who stood for something at a period when the truth was really needed against the system, when things were going askew in Vietnam. And of course, Pacino is larger than life.
BIRET: I read that Somali pirates preferred to be called “Guardians of the Sea.” By showing a more humane side to the pirates, were you ever concerned about promoting so-called “eco-terrorism”?
BUCKLEY: Anyone who sees this movie is not going to watch the news about Somalia in the same way. They’re kind of like us. They were colonized. They rebelled,. But they are just like us. Why do we hate them? We’re blindly hating them, and stating that they are terrorists without understanding the situation. In this case, Somalia is a victim of misunderstanding.
BIRET: During his meeting with the CIA, Jay describes the situation in Somalia as a “budding democracy,” which is a far cry from its depiction in the news. Can you please remind me of his speech?
BUCKLEY: He says: “In 2002, Somalia held an election where the minority clan won the presidential office by 80 votes. And the transition of power was completely peaceful. No violence. Not one shot fired. That doesn’t happen anywhere in Africa. That doesn’t even happen here. Anyway, it caught my eye and made me start to fall in love with Somalia. And ultimately made me go there to find out what made them different.” He basically says the same statement twice. Once in a car with his friends, who completely dismiss it because he is a nobody, and the second time in front of the CIA. You can say that same statement and change the trajectory of a country.
BIRET: What type of effect does the Trump travel ban have for the refugees who acted in the film?
BUCKLEY: Let’s put it this way, it’s not a risk for Barkhad to travel because he is sort of an ambassador at this point. But Sabrina, an amazing actress, is completely banned from the US, and so are all the other Somalian actors.
BIRET: Your films deal with sensitive topics. Have you received any type of feedback from the audience?
BUCKLEY: When we had our first screening of Asad in Santa Barabara for two nights in a row, eight people came both nights. At the end of the screening of the second day, one man walked over to us, and told us he was with the Department of State, and started asking me and my producer Matt [Lefebvre] all these questions: “what is your feeling about Somali policies,” etc. We told him that we were so far from being an expert in this field. We realized later that Obama had dispatched people to go to these festivals and other places to try to get information. Those questions were being taken down and pushed down on someone’s desk in Washington. These guys couldn’t get into Somalia because of their clan culture, so Jay clearly was the man. Anybody from the CIA would be knocked down in a second. Jay was like a freak.
BIRET: Do you think it’s important to take risks with covering challenging issues such as this one?
BUCKLEY: Hollywood over the years has done a very good job exploring, let’s say, the Holocaust. But there are so many things to explore, and some of these things are not so lucrative to explore, and there lies the problem. I believe in my heart that if we lead the way with these sorts of projects, they have to generate interest; it can’t just be a narrow market of arguably liberal educated equals watching documentaries, and at the end of the day everyone can say “oh my god, I saw that and it’s terrible.” But if we don’t take that storytelling and make it entertaining to get it to a wider audience, then we are going to be in the situation where we are at right now.