Review: Catching the Pirate King
- Depicting people taken hostage in the Indian Ocean, negotiations and investigations, Lennart and Marteen Stuyck offer up an effective and multi-dimensional film about Somalian pirates
"Piracy has two sides to it: what happens at sea and what happens on land. The reason Somalia has become a hub for piracy is because it’s a sanctuary. You can take boats there and wait in safety." It’s into a thrilling story with twists and turns and far more far-reaching ramifications than it first seems that Belgian documentary-makers Lennart and Marteen Stuyck have plunged by way of Catching the Pirate King [+see also:
film profile], which has screened in the main competition of FIPADOC.
"They came straight at us. We saw that they had firearms, machine guns; they even had a rocket launcher too. And their intentions weren’t good." It all began on 18 April 2009. The Pompei, a dredging ship which deposits rocks onto sea beds, was entering the waters of the Indian Ocean in the direction of South Africa when it came under attack by Somalian pirates. It was a high-yield area to be involved in, given that, at the time, 60 cargoes had previously been stolen in the Gulf of Aden and a ransom of $3m had been paid for a Saudi supertanker. For the ten men on board the Pompéi, it was the beginning of a lengthy marine ordeal, charted by way of testimonies from the captain and his second lieutenant because, at the same time, a chess-like negotiation over the ransom amount to be paid was playing out over the phone between Hans Slaman (based in the low key offices of International Security Partners in Lelystad, Holland) and Somalian Abdi who was representing the local militia. It would take 72 days (summarised into 12 in the film) before they reached a settlement and the boat and its men were freed.
But here’s where the documentary takes an even more interesting turn: the affair was far from over because the legal system and the Belgian police entered the fray, collecting digital fingerprints and traces of DNA from the Pompei, and conducting in-depth enquiries via the UN’s regional mission based in Nairobi. A lackey was subsequently arrested at sea, and, for the first time, a country tried a pirate. But crucially, the brains behind the operation was identified: Afweyne, known as Big Mouth, the king of the pirates who was also a khat smuggler. But how could they arrest him in his Adado lair? Ultimately, it was a dangerous undercover investigation in Somalia carried out by journalist Jeffrey Gettleman (New York Times) around the character of Tiiceey, the ambitious governor of the Himan & Heeb province, which led the Belgians to a very bold solution…
Skilfully constructed, Catching the Pirate King successfully drills down into its subject-matter from a number of angles (the economic, political and social situation in Somalia, the ship-owning world, the unseen universe of ransom negotiations, the human side of daily life as a hostage, the police and legal work involved, the heft of the Somalian diaspora, etc.), without ever losing its suspense and while still managing to paint fairly nuanced portraits of its main protagonists. Clearly, the film couldn’t be classified as arty, but the documentary nonetheless boasts a highly developed understanding of suggestive reconstruction while flowing seamlessly, not least on account of its intelligent and pertinent use of archive material and testimonies.
Catching the Pirate King is produced by Diplodokus in co-production with VRT, and is sold by Federation.
(Translated from French)
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