Stolen Seas: An interview with the director of a new documentary on Somali pirates

Last night, the new documentary Stolen Seas had its Washington D.C. premier. The first feature-length film by director Thymaya Payne is an in-depth, and often surprisingly sympathetic, look at Somali piracy. The movie is notable for featuring interviews with actual pirates, former hostages, and shipowners, and footage from on board pirate-occupied vessels. The film’s drama ...

Last night, the new documentary Stolen Seas had its Washington D.C. premier. The first feature-length film by director Thymaya Payne is an in-depth, and often surprisingly sympathetic, look at Somali piracy. The movie is notable for featuring interviews with actual pirates, former hostages, and shipowners, and footage from on board pirate-occupied vessels. The film’s drama centers around the 2008 hijacking of a Danish-owned, Russian-crewed cargo ship in the Gulf of Aden, and features gripping audio recordings of negotiations between the owners in Copenhagen and pirates as well as larger explorations of Somalia’s recent history.

The central character in the movie is the pirates’ translator, Ishmael Ali, who returned to Somalia — actually the semi-autonomous region of Somaliland — after years of living in the United States and finds that his perfect English makes him a valuable asset for pirate crews who need to negotiate with foreign ship-owners. Ali, a single father looking to provide for his son, speaks candidly about his role in multiple hijackings and sees himself as more of an independent contractor than a pirate. After the film was completed, Ali – who speaks frequently to the media — was arrested while trying to enter the United States to attend a conference on piracy.  

I spoke by phone with Payne about the making of the film. The transcript has been edited for length:

Foreign Policy:  What’s the latest on Ishmael Ali’s case. Are you still in touch with him?


Thymaya Payne: I haven’t been in touch with him since he was arrested just because I didn’t really think it was my place to get intertwined in that whole thing, and also because the FBI had called me at one point and wanted me to testify.So I just sent a note to his lawyer and asked about his son and wanted to make sure his son was being taken care of because he was a single dad.

My understanding is that his case was thrown out last summer but the prosecutors are currently appealing for a retrial.

FP: So it’s pretty rare to see interviews with actual participants in piracy. Was it difficult to gain the trust of Ishmael Ali and the other pirates you talked to?

TP: Ishmael Ali, first of all, isn’t really a pirate. I think the government says that he is, but he was just an in-between negotiator, so he was very easy to contact. I just emailed him. He wanted to talk all that he could about piracy because he sort of saw himself as a spokesperson for how to actually deal with piracy, which in many ways he was. So that was pretty easy actually. 

In terms of getting in touch with actual pirates — what I found out when I went to Somalia was that I was the biggest problem in that, when I would talk to people, a lot of times, if we did get to a pirate — like, say we’d get to a pirate in jail, or we’d meet someone at a wedding or something, they kind of just — the minute the camera was on, gave me the same spiel over and over again. It was like a press release had gone out about what to say to Western press.

So I started working with younger Somali reporters and stringers, who grew up with a lot of these guys. I started to realize that the best thing for me to do was actually just to give them a camera and get out of it – out of the way – and get my ego out of the way because the story wasn’t so much about me going and getting on a pirate ship. So I actually trained this young Somali guy how to like shoot a documentary film in two days at a hotel in Somaliland and then said "okay, well keep in touch."

And it was funny, I was actually in a meeting in Beverly Hills of all places talking about the film, and I got this phone call, and it was from my stringer, and he was like, "I’m on a boat", and I was like "what?" He’s like "I’m on a boat." And I was like "Okay."

He ended up getting some of the best footage of the Somali pirates, and then sometimes I’d be on the phone with him, or I would send him a text of what specifically I wanted him to ask the guys or get the conversation going about, and he would ask them that.

It’s the candor of that footage that people are reacting to because they’re like "Well how did you do that?" I’m like "well, you know, I outsourced it. I gave it to a young Somali guy because I wouldn’t have gotten it." Even if I had gotten on the boat, I wouldn’t have gotten that, and I knew that from my first trip, and so it was a pretty strategic decision to do that. 

FP: How is the film you ended up with different from what you had in mind when you started?

TP: It was completely different than what I started out doing. I was very naïve. I thought I was going to jump on a plane to Kenya with my partner Andre, and we were just going to, I don’t know, film ourselves being crazy in Somalia and go interview a pirate and that’s it. I just thought that would be enough and that would be exciting. And there are some films out there like that.

What I realized was that when you meet these people, and they open themselves up to you, you have this responsibility to tell the real story and to tell –not just what the story you want to tell–but actually what the story wants to be. So one of the great challenges of making a film is learning patience and learning to listen and to sort of let the film become what it wants to be

When it started out, we wanted it to be this sort of snappy, cool movie about pirates, and then we realized probably about six months into it, it was really a movie about the world we live in today, and pirates are just sort of a metaphor. And I think, still to this day, when people ask me what the movie is about, I almost pause and say "you know it’s not really about pirates."

FP: Right. I guess one sort of theme of the film was that both the Somali pirates and the shipping companies are operating outside a traditional nation-state framework.The pirates, because they operate in the midst of a failed state, and the companies, because they’re flying under flags of convenience outside the authority of governments. Was that something you had in mind when you came into the project?

TP: No, not at all. It was funny because you get a bunch of really smart people together — you know from left and right on the spectrum of political thought — and you get really interesting — a really interesting discussion. You have a sort of libertarian point of view of what the maritime industry should or shouldn’t do, and then you have a more leftist idea of what the government should be doing. I showed the film in Palm Springs, which is a place where you have right-wing Republicans and left-wing Democrats living in the same place, and I found that both thought that I was taking their side.

What I was really just trying to do was start a discussion about whether or not the nation-state is relevant in terms of really dealing with piracy. I don’t really know if it’s true or not true, but I really like documentaries that just raise questions, without necessarily giving you tons of answers.

FP: So some of the experts you were talking to in the film seem very critical of the international naval efforts to combat piracy and question whether combating piracy with the military is useful or even possible. Yet recent statistics show that piracy has dramatically decreased off Somalia. Do you think that these international efforts are working or do you think it’s just temporary and the problem will come back?

TP: I had someone else ask me this, and I go back to the film, and I don’t really know if the film is actually critical of the naval response. I don’t think we’ve ever stated that if the navy didn’t want to it couldn’t suppress [piracy]. In fact, I think we said the exact opposite.

I think the question we’re really asking is, "Is this the most efficient usage of resources?" Of course the U.S. Navy and the CTF 151, if we wanted to, could suppress a bunch of guys in boats — you know? The question at the time I was filming was, "do we have the will to do it?" Since then, we seem to have decided that we do, and have succeeded in suppressing it.

Then the next question is: how long will we have the will to do this? How long are we going to be policing the seas, spending billions of dollars policing the seas off the coast of Somalia? Is this interminable? We’re just always going to have a presence there? And is that really dealing with the problem? And I think that’s my larger message. Which is: Is punitive measures and flying pirates to trials abroad in America or in Italy or in Denmark and all these different places is that really solving — not just the problems of piracy — but really the underlying issues which piracy is just a symptom of?

If I was going to put a coda on the film, I’d say, "Okay, yeah the numbers are down, but you know what? Every single military person who gets quoted says ‘yeah, they’re down right now, but the minute we let off they’ll come back up.’"

FP: One of the more provocative suggestions in the film is that something positive may actual have come out of all of this since the pirates put Somalia back on the international agenda.

TP: Yeah, I mean how much press is there really on Dadaab verses the pirates? There’s five hundred thousand people living in permanent refugee camps in Kenya, destabilizing that region of Kenya and basically having no way out for their entire lives, and that doesn’t make such a great story, and I understand why, but it’s not such a big part of my movie for the same reason. It just isn’t as dynamic as the pirates, but I think –I don’t know–I feel like there’s a way for us to learn from the pirates, to then relook at-take another look at Somalia, and say, "Okay, this is what happens when we ignore it. Something like piracy occurs. And what I fear is that if we keep ignoring it, or it doesn’t get the attention that it sort of needs something else will come out, and it will be worse than the pirates.

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy  Twitter: @joshuakeating