Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Stolen Seas

The documentary "Stolen Seas" examines the metastasizing problem of Somali piracy, now the African nation's leading "industry." The filmmakers use audio recordings and interviews to recreate the tense, months-long talks between Per Gullestrup, owner of a Danish shipping line, and Ishmael Ali, the gregarious and experienced Somali nabob the pirates bring aboard to bargain on their behalf.
Despite the financial and human stakes, Gullestrup remains sanguine and won't be bullied; when Ali has the ship's captain call Gullestrup to ask him to raise the firm's ransom offer, Gullestrup hangs up and sends word to Ali not to insult his intelligence that way again. Eventually, the men reach a resolution, and Gullestrup hires specialists to package and drop the blood money after obtaining visual proof of life of the thirteen crew members. Some months later, he and Ali remain in occasional contact, an ineffable bond between them if not actual friendship.

The filmmakers do a decent job of tracing the cultural and economic history of Somalia in a way that helps to explain the birth of the piracy phenomenon. They also show that foreign governments and multinational corporations have financial interests in not solving the problem; it creates work for them, and the shippers simply incorporate its associated ten-figure "cost of doing business" into their fees. It's a fascinating issue, but most so at the ground level, and that's where "Stolen Seas" falls short. We never feel like we're on the ship itself, living out the terror, hopelessness, and even boredom of a half-year-long siege. Too often, the film plays like a well-made television documentary rather than a deeply felt human experience.

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