Going Undercover with Somalia's Oil-Thirsty Pirates
"The Pirate Tapes" is a film made with a low budget but very large balls.
Film companies around the world have spent years trying to figure out how to get in with Somalia's pirates and come out the other side with their footage and necks intact. Armed with just a mini-camera and a healthy reserve of wannabe gangsta attitude, Canadian-Somali Mohamed Ashareh managed to get up close and personal with the Horn of Africa's Bluebeards in 2009 for his film The Pirate Tapes.
Canadian film company Palmira PDC worked with Ashareh as he wandered around Somalia's pirate-heavy Puntland region getting himself into fake multi-million dollar business deals, jail cells, and hostage situations. After he returned, they collected his footage and helped him knock the film into shape. Ashareh doesn’t seem too happy with the final version, but we loved it, so we got in touch with Palmira producer Andrew Moniz to find out more about this tale of rich guys poisoning poor guys with toxic waste and poor guys fighting back by stealing oil tankers for ransom money.
VICE: This is your first documentary, right?
Andrew Moniz: Yeah. We never considered doing a documentary before because the risk is so high and the return is so low. How many documentaries do you watch that you really like? I mean, there are only a handful that we would consider spending two years of our lives making. That's the reality of it. People who make documentaries are hardcore. We're fictional. We like to go to the movies and eat popcorn.
How did you meet Mohamed?
He came to us because he went to Puntland, where his family is from in Somalia, with a small camcorder. He had no filmmaking background, but he said he wanted us to edit the footage he had into some sort of movie. We explained to him that you can't just go somewhere, point a camera at it, and expect a film to come out at the other end. At the start, we were basically talking him out of making a film. But he did have a couple of interesting interviews with people that he claimed were pirates, so we talked about how this could be a really cool film. But we told him he’d have to go back there and that this would be at least a year of his life. But if he was saying that he could get pirates on film, we thought it might be worth it.
What was your original intention for the film?
What we wanted to do originally was just a point of view type film that looked very raw, because we knew that this wasn't going to be a cinematic masterpiece, it was going to be covert-style filming. So we taught him the basics—how to handle the camera, how to keep the footage secret, and how to make sure the people he was with weren’t going to blow his head off... that kind of thing. We were also thinking: “This guy could die. This is extremely dangerous.” But Mohamed actually did a pretty good job.
The way the film's shot, it seems like there was another cameraman with him in Somalia.
We got another Somali guy, Abdikareem Issa, to shoot B-roll and some other interviews with pirates as well. Abdikareem’s a great guy—the first time Mohamed went to jail, Abdikareem went too.
Did Mohamed call you when he went to jail?
Yeah, the film shows us trying to get him out, but in the end his family had to get him. If they found out a Canadian production company was behind him, they'd ask for a huge ransom.
He went to prison after going on the run and getting picked up on the border of Somaliland, because the clan he was from wasn't native to that area. Did anyone in Somalia know Mohamed was making a film?
No. Only Abdikareem knew, later on. There were times when we wanted Mohamed to follow people we thought were interesting and he said no, because he thought they’d find out he was making a movie. He was wary of people who knew "too much" English or were "too smart."
How did you get the covert footage?
Mohamed had the camera around his neck, very high up, so it was almost like tie level, and he's very tall. He walked around with the camera rolling all the time and you would never know. He always had this camera so people just sort of got used to it, they thought it was a photo camera, nobody knew that it was shooting HD video.
How did you deal with him going to prison? Was there a point where you thought, “Shit, if he gets banged up I’m going to feel a little bit responsible.”?
When he was out there I received a phone call from him in the middle of the night and he told me he was in jail and to please help him. Then he said he was going to call his family. He called from this weird cell phone number, so we kept trying to call it because we thought it was the jail, but it was some guy's cell phone. Mohamed had basically been kidnapped. They had him down on his knees at one point with a gun to his head. We knew he was on the run because he called us the day before and was like, "I need $2,000 in cash. I'm gonna fly out. I'm gonna go to the airport." We gave him the cash and thought everything would be OK, but then he called and said, “No, I'm in jail. The cash is gone. They stole all the cash, they stole all the camera equipment, they stole all the footage, everything.” So we had to get him home and then we started thinking about the footage.
There's a moment where you call Blackwater, the notorious private military company, asking them to get him out of prison. Was that for real? What did they end up saying?
Blackwater was real. We were actually calling a bunch of private security firms while Mohamed was in jail. We mostly wanted to see what it would take to rescue someone from Africa in a situation like that and how much it would cost. Obviously it would be insanely expensive, but it was something we were willing to consider. Blackwater didn't take us seriously, though. They put us in touch with someone there who was supposed to help but never got back to us. I think it's because we were filming the whole thing in a small car and we weirded them out. In retrospect, it probably would have been a huge mistake to have gone down that route.
Mohamed's front to get in with the pirates was that he was the intermediary for a Western businessman. Can you explain that?
We didn't really know much about how things work down there, but he did. He said: "Look, you know the pirates make their money like this, there are investors involved, and it's very much a business. There are foreign investors who come in from all over and they're the ones who usually take most of the profits." So if they ever asked him why he was filming, he could always say that he was doing it to show to investors. That was our cover, even though the whole time he'd be shipping us footage and we'd be editing it into this film.
Did this require a lot of cash?
Somalia's not a cheap country. We spent at least $30,000 just on his trip alone. There's no set price for anything. There's no real economy, and when a pirate takes a ship, everything in the local town goes up in price because they know these pirates are going to have millions of dollars.
The film deals quite nicely with the initial causes of Somalian piracy—the overfishing from Western fishing fleets that collapsed the local fishing industry, and so on. It then quite neatly demonstrates that, while those problems are still used as an excuse, it no longer really applies to the way the pirates operate now. It's not really about depleted fish stocks anymore, is it?
No, not any more. We knew that these people were straight up gangsters. But we also thought, "OK, if these people are protecting their livelihoods, they have every right to go and stop whoever is in their waters stealing their fish." I mean, if you lived in a decimated country like that and a ship was in your water taking your fish and, instead of fishing you could go and hold it hostage until an insurance company paid you, you would do that. There's no question. Any normal person would do that. But then it became all about the money—taking big tankers because they're unarmed, slower, and are worth way more cash. It's not like they're crazy and going out killing people. It's a job for them.
This thing has been an issue for a while, but coverage has only really come in dribs and drabs. You guys seem to have gotten the best access I've seen.
That's why we went into it—because we knew this was going to be a film that was going to get made no matter what. What we know is that people who make these types of documentaries are either going to go all the way and get in there and risk themselves, or they're going to show it from the point of view of the military and reformed pirates before going to a London office for interviews.
The one Western expert you had was the UN’s Matt Bryden, who was very good.
Originally we had been interviewing a lot of Somali politicians and they were just talking smack about him, calling him the "White Devil." At first, we believed them. He'd filed this report saying there is a ton of corruption in Somalia and we felt bad for a lot of the politicians he’d accused. One thing that a lot of them never really understood was that Matt Bryden had proof of all this. I think they thought that these were just blind allegations. We were going into that interview thinking that this guy was going to make a tool of himself, but he ended up being the best bit we got.
Did you become convinced that the Puntland government was in some kind of collusion with the pirates?
There are some good people in that government and there are corrupt people, just like in the West. But yeah, with the president of Puntland, there was a lot of talk and everyone knows it in the community. They would always talk about it.
What do you think the perception of the Somali pirates is in the Western world?
One of the biggest things we wanted to do with this movie is give the mainstream media a big middle finger, because they can't report on this story properly. The mainstream media goes after the pirate story with such a camp attitude—you know, Pirates of the Caribbean, that kind of thing. They don't understand what these people have gone through, and that they now essentially control a stretch of water with heavy boat traffic, and they will literally screw over everyone if nothing is done.
So you felt the previous coverage was either patronizing or just incomplete and sensationalist?
Yeah, totally. The problem is clearly on land. The real story isn't even the piracy, it's the toxic waste dumping and the fish stocks that are just getting decimated in that area. I mean it's crazy when you think about the amount of people who come there from first world nations and dump toxic—even nuclear—waste in the water. The Somalis affected by this—and we show this in the film—have to go to the hospital in Nairobi, and they get the scraps of the treatment because they are treated after Kenyans. They don't usually survive. Then you have these fishing vessels in the same water taking all this fish and processing it and selling it to everyone around the world.
And it ends up on our table. Thanks Andrew, and well done!
- Vice Blog