A Hijacking: Fishing Without Nets

by |
09/24/2014 4:00 AM |

Fishing Without Nets
Directed by Cutter Hodierne

The 27-year-old Cutter Hodierne won a directing prize at Sundance for this story of a Somali fisherman who turns to piracy, and it’s easy enough to see why. Shooting in part on the open ocean, wrangling a non-professional, largely non-Anglophone cast, Hodierne stages action clearly, with assured camera movement, and imparts the scope of his locations; he sneaks many-angled glimpses at the logistics of modern nautical hijackings, while carrying out revealing stress tests within the band of pirates who capture an oil tanker; and, as others have praised him for doing, he dramatizes contemporary politicized violence from an African point of view. Fishing Without Nets is an achievement not without consequence; the fatal miscalculations at its heart are therefore meaningful, not merely disqualifying.

The film’s first movement introduces us to Abdi (Abdikani Muktar), and endeavors to render his character and decisions sympathetic to a Western audience. He hauls in nets, walks through slums, cuddles with his young son, watches his loving wife sing as she prepares food alongside a toothless old woman; in voiceover, he reflects: “These waters are my home. My father fished here, and his father before him.” But now the waters are drying up, polluted by foreign vessels. Abdi’s boyhood friend has money in his pockets; Abdi needs money as well, to follow his wife to Yemen, where they’ve arranged for her to be smuggled. Their parting words hit the conventional beats of melodrama without the poetry (to be truer to impoverished, uneducated characters?): “I’ll wait for you there.” “We have to take a chance.”

Abdi joins the pirates at almost precisely the twenty-minute mark (I note with pleasure the persistence of the one-reel-of-exposition rule past the phaseout of reel changeovers). As they set out to sea on a ramshackle trawler, the musical score kicks up, the editing rhythm accelerates, and the subtitles drop out. In fact, the pirates’ dialogue goes unsubtitled in several sequences in the movie—not merely during rapid-fire exchanges in which tone and context are sufficient, but particularly during moments of impending violence, their suddenly alien speech building an atmosphere of threat and confusion.

The pirates’ raid on the empty tanker initially goes smoothly, but unease builds as their well-fed “Chairman” preaches patience during negotiations with the (evidently uninsured) shipping company. As his boss Blacky (Abdi Siad) chews khat nonstop and grows increasingly paranoid (he alludes to the Americans’ “invisible planes”—drones), Abdi bonds with a hostage and places furtive sat-phone calls to the human traffickers in possession of his wife and child; with ever-greater frequency, rising dramatic tension is played in counterpoint to flashbacks of Abdi frolicking with his happy family unit, or cut-ins on Abdi looking weepy as the rest of the pirates stand around looking menacing. Eventually, it becomes clear that we’re watching the story not of a three-dimensional figure making understandable decisions until he becomes a terrorist under Western eyes, but rather of a good Somali Muslim who is kidnapped by bad Somali Muslims and forced to do terrible things. As the loosest cannon among the pirates, Siad—unblinking, erratic and shortsighted, conditioned to a mythic view of power, not so much greedy as resentful—embodies a compelling, challenging, genuinely foreign figure, but despite the film’s consciousness-raising intentions, Hodierne only has the imagination to use him as a villain.

Opens October 3 at Cinema Village