Last year, my producing partner John Hibey and I flew to Kenya from Washington, DC, to shoot a fictional short about why Somalis become pirates. It was too dangerous to film in Somalia, so we worked out of Mombasa, Kenya, 60 miles south of the Somali border, on the Indian Ocean.
One night thugs dressed in Kenyan military uniforms and wielding AK-47s emerged from the shadows on a dark beach and robbed us. Only we didn’t know they were thugs; we thought they were cops. It was the scariest night of my life. And yet it turned out to be the night that provided a key insight for my film, Fishing Without Nets.
On Jan. 24, the Sundance Film Festival awarded the 2012 Jury Prize in Short Filmmaking to our 17-minute film. After being robbed, scammed, hassled and put in jail, winning Sundance was the last thing we expected in fall 2010 when we were shooting in East Africa.
But we had to go there. We needed to see the geography, taste the food and experience the rhythms of daily life before we could write a script. So on a wing and a prayer, I took money I’d made as a filmmaker on the road for U2, and set off to learn more. I’d wind up spending a hell of a lot more of my own money, and as a college dropout, learn more about corruption and bureaucracy than I would ever have gotten from a semester abroad.
Since I first read a newspaper story about Somali pirates in 2008, I’ve been obsessed with the subject and have read everything I could get my hands on. Initially, the pirates seemed romantic: Somalis claiming they were getting even for foreigners dumping trash and overfishing their waters. I’ve come to realize, though, they are not Robin Hoods. It's far more complicated. But no one was telling their story—a global story about pirates who have a strong human, empathetic perspective. And it wasn’t easy to do.
When we arrived in Kenya, our biggest obstacle was getting government permission to use AK-47s and Rocket Propelled Grenades to make the film look authentic. You can't make a movie about Somali pirates if you aren't armed to the teeth, obviously. Another issue was working with Somali non-actors. The cast, all Somali refugees living in Kenya, insisted we provide khat (a locally popular plant stimulant) on set every day. To direct these actors, I spoke English to our fixer, who translated into Swahili which was translated by someone else into Somali. Talk about a game of telephone from hell.
Looking back, we could have made a movie called: A Couple White Guys Go to Kenya and Convince the Cops to Give 'Em Guns.
On the night we were robbed, we’d been in Kenya for two weeks, writing, scouting locations and hiring cast members. That night, our other producer, Raphael Swann, arrived from California.
Instead of introducing Raphael the gritty underbelly of Mombasa, which we'd been immersing ourselves in, we’d gone to a resort 2 hours away. The music was loud, the drinks weak and the place filled with smoke and European tourists. We needed a break, so the three of us headed toward the beach with another American we had met.
Five men appeared from out of the dark, guns blazing.
“You very big trouble,” one said. “This a CNN incident.”
The men surrounded us, handcuffed us together, and walked us out to the ocean.
They argued frantically among themselves, pointing fingers and guns. It was hard to tell who was in charge. I just knew it wasn't me. I was captive.
Loud music blasted in the distance, but we couldn't scream for help. We were waist deep in water when it hit me: “Shit; we're going to jail before we ever film one scene.”
My next thought: “We might be killed by these lunatics.”
John started yelling at the men. Raphael channeled the LA agent/manager in him and started negotiating. A million thoughts raced through my head, all leading to the same point: "This is a really shitty reason to not make a movie."
One by one, we realized they were thugs, not cops. We weren't going to jail. On the positive side, Raphael was handcuffed but still taking sips of his beer.That’s when I got really scared. They spoke barely any English; we no Swahili. It suddenly felt like all the makings of a bad TV movie, a situation that could go terribly wrong because of guns, adrenaline, and a steep language barrier.
“Please let us pay the fine,” I pleaded. They didn’t understand "fine." I reached for my wallet.
“Ah fine. Yes, give fine,” one said. John was still yelling, upping the ante. I could see the headline. “Four Americans Die in Hold-up.” That would be so mundane.
“Shut up, John!” I yelled repeatedly as I emptied my wallet, handing over $150. The others followed. John must have known they weren't cops. Either that, or he's crazy, which is probably what's required to make a movie in East Africa.
Every so often we’d hear: “CNN incident," but In the end they let us go.
Driving back to Mombasa, jacked up, we talked nonstop about what had just happened. Suddenly the metaphorical light bulb went off: “This must be what it feels like to be robbed by Somali pirates!" The terror we all felt must be similar to what a cargo ship crew experiences as they see a ragtag teams of Somalis climbing aboard their boat.
I had just paid $150 for invaluable research for the feature film.
A while later we left Kenya with a short film, and this summer we are returning to shoot a feature, now armed with details to make the movie even more authentic.
I just hope there isn't another "CNN incident."