“This is my company, it’s my ship, these are my men,” declares CEO Peter Ludvigsen to hostage negotiator Connor.
I remember when I heard on the news a few years ago that a ship was hijacked by Somali pirates and held for ransom. Like everyone else, I thought it was a joke. Pirates in the 21st century? Really? At first I thought it was just a ruse to grab ratings, but then I found out it was for real. Go figure. Apparently, actual piracy never really went away; it just got buried under the image of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies (when people think of pirates, they think of 1800s-era pirates). I knew of some people who were confused when they first saw the Somali pirates (they wondered why the pirates didn’t look like Jack Sparrow–I’m not joking about this). There were certainly people who laughed off the situation, but I think a lot of people missed the significance of it. Desperation can drive people to do unthinkable things, and there are social and economic issues that strongly factor into that. I’m not defending the pirates; their actions were horrible and indefensible. A modern day pirate isn’t much different from a shrewd scumbag of a businessman when it comes to acquiring money (they’ll acquire it any way they can and don’t care who gets hurt in the process). However, it is important to understand what circumstances led modern day pirates to do what they did (and/or still do) and why there continue to be disparities between impoverished nations and much more modern countries.
Seeing the Danish film A Hijacking at Film Forum recently got me thinking about modern day piracy again (and not the movie-related kind). To sum up, Tobias Lindholm’s film is about the crew of a Danish cargo ship, the MV Rozen, that gets hijacked by Somali pirates. Those pirates then proceed to engage in an escalating, suspenseful negotiation with the ship’s company in Copenhagen via satellite phone. Surprisingly, there is little violence shown in Lindholm’s film; most of the violence occurs off-screen (including the actual hijacking). The big highlight of the film is the extremely lengthy and suspenseful negotiation between the company’s CEO Peter Ludvigsen and the pirates’ translator/negotiator Omar. The film is also supported by two intensely strong performances from Søren Malling (who plays Peter) and Johan Asbæk (who plays Mikkel, the ship’s cook). Malling’s Peter isn’t like most CEOs we hear of in the news; he genuinely cares about the men on his ship and wants to get them home as soon as possible but, after hearing advice from Connor (a hostage negotiator he hired), he also understands that if he gives the pirates the exact amount of money they ask for they’ll just ask for more and continue to keep the hostages until they get more. He hates having to go through with the prolonged negotiation but feels obligated to see it through ’til the end because he wants to make sure that his men are freed.
Asbæk’s Mikkel is the anchor of the film; the prolonged negotiation is extremely rough for all the crew members, but perhaps even more for Mikkel, who has a wife and young daughter waiting for him at home. We want him to get back to them as much as he does (especially since he was supposed to be returning home very soon), and we see how frustrating the negotiation is on both sides. The conditions the crew are forced to stay in are harsh; Mikkel, the captain, and the engineer are confined to a small room while the rest of the crew is held below deck in the cargo space. Mikkel tries to endure as best he can, but over the course of the four months he’s held hostage he goes from being angry to becoming shell-shocked towards the end of it. The grueling experience for him and Peter leaves them drained and, despite the eventual outcome, there is no true victory for either man. Lindholm’s excellent film eschews the route a Hollywood production might’ve gone on with this story and embraces the Dogme style of some other Danish films (which is what helps make this film so effective). Interestingly, there is another film coming out later this year that also deals with Somali pirates. The Paul Greengrass-directed Captain Phillips stars Tom Hanks as the real life Captain Richard Phillips, who was held hostage when Somali pirates hijacked his ship in 2009. I’m curious about what similarities and differences there will be to A Hijacking, but since I’m familiar with Greengrass’ style and the film’s screenplay was written by Billy Ray, I’m actually hopeful that Captain Phillips will turn out well and serve as a nice companion piece to Lindholm’s film.