Sunday, September 28, 2014

NYFF ’14: Last Hijack

According to the Oceans Beyond Piracy project, over 1,000 international seamen have been held hostage by Somali pirates—roughly a third of whom were tortured and 62 died from a variety of causes. Yet, it sure is more convenient to cast the pirates as victims of colonialism, globalism, capitalism, and generally mean old westernism. However, films trying to advance that narrative have been less than convincing, despite the quality of their execution. Sort of picking up where Greenglass’s Captain Phillips left off, Tommy Pallotta & Femke Wilting offer a personal and figurative defense of high seas plunder in their animated hybrid documentary Last Hijack (trailer here), which screens today as a Convergence selection of the 52nd New York FilmFestival.

Former pirate Muhamed Nura pulled off a few big hijackings and lived to talk about. Unfortunately, he did not save any of his ransom money. Facing middle age with little prospects, Nura decides to assemble a team for one last job. However, times have changed and maritime security is much tighter. Everyone is against his plan, including his stern mother and his vastly younger fiancée. Nonetheless, he has no trouble lining up crew and financial backers.

Pallotta and Wilting clearly invite sympathy for Somali pirates, trying to position them as modern Jean Valjeans, but they bizarrely chose a distinctly unsympathetic POV character. During his screen time, Nura emerges as a rather rash braggart, who seems to have little concern for the consequences of his actions. Although he is supposedly in hard fiscal straights, he has a new wife and a new fixer-upper house, which does not look like such a bad situation.

In contrast, radio talk show host and anti-piracy advocate Abdifatah Omar Gedi cuts a more interesting (and more heroic) figure. During his on-camera sequences, Gedi’s cell phone never stops ringing, constantly receiving calls from strangers trying to determine his location. Frankly, viewers will quickly conclude Pallotta and Wilting choose the wrong person to build their film around.

At least, Nura’s hijacking exploits lend themselves to the animated bird of prey interludes that incorporate Hisko Hulsing’s striking paintings. Their symbolically charged look and feel recalls the vibe of Damian Nenow’s short Paths of Hate and select moments of the original Heavy Metal. They are effective, whereas many of the straight forward doc segments are often a bit sluggish—snoozy even.

Last Hijack makes some legitimate points here and there, but like Captain Phillips, it never pursues the shadowy moneymen underwriting the hijackings. As a result, the attempts to build empathy for Nura fall flat. Drastically uneven, it offers tantalizing hints of a better, deeper film that might have resulted from different decisions at several critical junctures. Perhaps audiences will get more of what might have been at Pallotta & Wilting’s presentation of the film’s online component. Regardless, Last Hijack is largely disappointing when it screens tonight (9/28) at the Gilman Theater as a Convergence selection of this year’s NYFF, in advance of its New York opening this Friday (10/3) at the Quad Cinema.