'Fishing Without Nets' Is Hijacking the Big Screen
In the year or so since Fishing Without Nets was released we've yapped about it quite a bit. But short films about Somali pirates starring Somali actors don't come around too often, and when they do, they deserve lots and lots of attention. So that’s exactly what we’re giving them.
Since director Cutter Shepard Hodierne shot the initial short in Mombasa in 2009, a lot has changed in the pirate industry. In 2012, only 14 ships were hijacked, the lowest number in four years, in part thanks to the big men with guns who were stationed on the commercial vessels that travel near the Somali coast. But the pirates still pose a serious problem, one the government is eager to quash. Just last week, for example, the Somali government offered amnesty to lower-level pirates willing to give up their swashbuckling ways.
Cutter recently returned to Mombasa with his producing partner, John Hibey, to expand Fishing Without Nets into a feature-length film, starring many of the same actors and set during modern piracy's heyday, around 2009. If you haven't seen the short, you can buy it on iTunes for $1.99, and if you're in Austin for that tune- and booze-fueled shindig no one will shut up about, we'll be screening it tomorrow evening at 401 E. Cesar Chavez.
Cutter is editing the feature version of Fishing Without Nets in our New York office, about 15 feet from my desk, so I decided to find out how it's coming and what he thinks about the current state of piracy in Somalia.
Photos by Katelyn Partlow
VICE: Around a year ago, you wrote an essay for us about your initial shoot in Mombasa, Kenya. You were robbed at gunpoint on the beach by a bunch of no-goodniks disguised in military uniforms. Any similar experiences this time around?
Cutter Shepard Hodierne: We were in a very different situation this time because we had way more people with us, so we weren't as vulnerable. That said, there is nothing like producing films in Africa. You're always bound to find some sort of calamity, and, of course, we did.
Let's hear it.
Well, my favorite story took place while we were shooting a scene on the ocean. We were out there in small speedboats early in the morning. One of our pirates was extremely hungover from a night of drinking and khat chewing, and his hangover worsened as it combined with seasickness. He was in a horrible state. We arranged for a boat to take him back to shore, but before it got to us, the other members of our cast raised their AK-47s and pointed them at the driver of our boat, a white guy from South Africa. Their guns didn't have bullets in them, but the actors, who were now pretty into their roles, scared the boat driver so much that he panicked and allowed the actors to "pirate" the ship. The radio chatter on this event was priceless. The first assistant director was saying something like, "We can confirm that the boat has in fact been commandeered and is heading back to shore. We are chasing it down currently." On the way back the engine died, and a second boat showed up and took the hungover/seasick actor back to shore where he recovered.
But no, we weren't robbed this time.
What's the new storyline going to be like? Is it going to focus on Abdi, the central character in the short? And are the other actors going to be the same?
Yes, the story follows Abdi. A few of the other key cast members return as well. The feature follows Abdi and the pirates as they head to the high seas and capture an oil tanker. In some ways it's like a continuation of the short film.
The Somali pirates aren't in the news as much as they were a couple of years ago, when you were shooting the original short. Do you think that's because there are less pirates, or has the media just gotten tired of talking about it?
There are fewer pirate attacks. This is due to a variety of factors like an increased military presence in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden, and more efforts to thwart piracy on the ground in Somalia.
So where the short served as a film about a current event, the feature will fall more into the category of "recent historical fiction." Regardless, I think this subject matter is timeless, and the story from the perspective of the Somalis will open people's eyes to a new world.
Is the new story going to take into account the changes in the pirate landscape?
The story takes place while piracy is still a thriving business. However, there are a few pirates [in the film] who are extremely aware of the increasing military presence and are fearful of what they perceive as an almost supernatural enemy in the foreign naval forces.
Going back to the Somali perspective you mentioned, what are the actors' backgrounds? They are all refugees, right?
Yes, all of the actors are Somali refugees who live in coastal Kenya. Their backgrounds vary, but many of them spent most of their lives in Somalia and have seen and experienced things that allow them to portray their characters very realistically. They are amazingly talented actors.
For the short you had to deal with two translators in order to communicate with the Somali actors: one who spoke English and Swahili, and another who spoke Swahili and Somali. Did you have to play that horrible game of telephone this time, or did you manage to lock in one translator who spoke English and Somali? We had one phenomenal translator the entire time who spoke English and Somali fluently. He became one of my closest collaborators on the film, because he allowed me to speak with the actors and helped me connect with the cast in amazing ways. Additionally, a few of the new cast members spoke great English, so in a few cases I was able to speak directly with them. The cast was among my closest creative allies on this movie. They are co-authors of the story.
Did you meet any real pirates?
Without sounding cliché, I can't comment. But I have met a lot of people who are intimately involved in piracy, and I consulted with them heavily.
What do you think are some of Somalia's economic and social problems that might make the pirate lifestyle attractive?
There hasn't been a functioning government in Somalia since 1992. Civil war and famine has afflicted the country for decades. Somalia is one of the most dangerous and brutal places on Earth. It occupies 2,000 miles of coastline in one of the most valuable and heavily trafficked shipping lanes in the world. So what could be a thriving tourist industry with gorgeous beaches and ports that connect the Middle East to Asia, Europe, and the Americas is instead a tragic place. The country improves every year, but given the current conditions, piracy is an attractive lifestyle. However, those days may be near an end.
Many pirates cite illegal fishing by foreign ships as the reason they got involved with piracy. Do you know if international ships have stopped fishing in Somali waters?
To my understanding the problem is one that persists, since there is no central government to defend the waters. One researcher living in Kenya told me that the fishing trawlers will go in and get a huge catch, then sail over to a larger international fishing vessel and literally sell the fish on the high seas to the bigger company.
Just the other day, Somalia's president offered amnesty to junior pirates. Do you think many of them will accept it?
I'm not certain what the politics are behind that decision, or what else besides amnesty is being offered, so it's hard for me to answer whether or not they will accept it. If I had to guess, I could definitely imagine an unsuccessful, lowly pirate selling out his pirate superiors for a cash reward from local politicians. But I'm not sure.