Stolen Seas: Palm Springs Review

Stolen Seas - H 2013
Goldcrest Films
A potent hybrid of fresh reportage, found footage and dramatization that sheds a bracing light on the socioeconomics of high-seas piracy.

In a penetrating exploration of Somali piracy, the filmmakers enter a world that has little to do with sensationalistic headlines.

PALM SPRINGS — The documentary Stolen Seas is not just a high-energy chronicle of a ship’s hijacking; Thymaya Payne’s bold debut feature steps back for a view of Somali piracy that’s both broader and more incisive than most mainstream news coverage. Compiling existing material and three years’ worth of new reporting, the film shows piracy to be no anomaly but part and parcel of modern global capitalism. After the doc’s most recent stop on the festival circuit, at Palm Springs, it takes its theatrical bow Jan. 18 in New York, and should spark interest as a noteworthy nonfiction release as it enters additional markets and premieres Jan. 26 on DirecTV. 

Payne examines the 2008 hijacking of a Danish-owned ship, the CEC Future, which was transporting American steel from Belgium to Indonesia when Somali pirates seized it in the Gulf of Aden. The film revolves around the ensuing high-stakes ransom negotiations (the pirates’ initial demand was $7 million), which play out as a bargaining contest between corporate finance and crime-syndicate machismo. 

Interviews with several of the people involved may be after the fact, but they come across with a striking immediacy, especially as editor Garret Price interweaves them with audio of the negotiators’ conversations and cameraphone footage of the crew of 13, most of them Russian, during the two-month ordeal. Judiciously used re-enactments meld seamlessly, for the most part, into the mix. Through contacts in Somaliland, Payne also has secured video of pirates. Sometimes they’re all bluster, showing off their status and relative wealth; sometimes they strike silent poses like archetypal figures of terror, covering their faces while brandishing Kalashnikovs and Lee belt buckles. 

Key figures in the evolving business transaction over the hijacked ship are Per Gullestrup, a top executive at Copenhagen-based Clipper Group, and Ishmael Ali, the Somali translator/negotiator hired by the pirates. Charismatic and loquacious, Ali is the central figure in the documentary, a middleman of ambiguous intent who takes a pragmatic view of piracy as an economic engine that “feeds a lot of people.”

Through the commentary of historians, maritime experts, terrorism specialists and journalists, among them the Independent’s Daniel Howden, Vanity Fair’s William Langewiesche and Noam Chomsky, the film builds a modern history of Somalia — an impoverished country that has had weapons pumped into it by the United States and the Soviets, and whose ongoing famine is, in the estimation of one expert, the most urgent humanitarian disaster in the world. Circumstances over the years led many Somalis, who have a strong tradition of camel herding, to turn to fishing, only to find their waters overtaken by foreign ships on illegal fishing expeditions — itself a form of piracy. 

Without condoning the Somali pirates’ crimes, the film makes clear that one man’s piracy is another’s business as usual. Shipping companies have been flouting national restrictions and taxes for decades by sailing under “flags of convenience.” In essence, not unlike Wall Street, they thrive financially outside government constraints but enlist governmental assistance when trouble, like a hijacking, arises. The Clipper Group has 250 ships in this open registry system, and the hijacked CEC Future was registered in the Bahamas, whose navy would be of little use in a showdown with pirates. 

If, as Ali insists, an underground economy thrives on the pirates’ booty, those gains don’t filter into Somalia as a whole, and do nothing to alleviate the country’s state of crisis. Stolen Seas shows, too, that piracy isn’t truly a threat to the shipping industry’s big players. The books get balanced, the losses written off, and the crews, relatively cheap labor, are on the frontlines in dangerous waters. 

Venue: Palm Springs International Film Festival

Opens: January 18 (Brainstorm Media)

Production companies: A Goldcrest Films presentation of a Species Being Films production in association with Diamond Docs and Bridge of Hands

Director: Thymaya Payne

Screenwriter: Mark Monroe

Producers: Thymaya Payne, Andre Lascaris, Heather Phenix, Andrew Walker

Executive producer: Nick Quested

Directors of photography: Andre Lascaris, Bobby Shore, Eric Koretz

Music: Gregg Lehrman

Editor: Garret Price

No MPAA rating, 90 minutes