Sundance-winning filmmaker explores grim world of Somali piracy
Saturday, April 27, 2013
BY PHILIP CAULFIELD
Cutter Hodierne, a 26-year-old filmmaker, is expanding his Sundance-winning short film about Somali pirates -- cast by actual Somali refugees living in Kenya -- into a feature film produced by Brooklyn's Vice Media.
A Somali pirate chews khat in 'Fishing Without Nets,' an upcoming feature film about Somali piracy directed by Cutter Hodierne and co-produced by Vice Media.
Director Cutter Hodierne knew there was trouble when the pirates decided to mutiny.
Hodierne and a film crew were aboard a small fleet of boats off the coast of Kenya last fall shooting a scene for "Fishing Without Nets," his movie about Somali pirates, when the 26-year-old got word over a walkie-talkie that his pirate actors had captured a boat and were heading to shore.
In true swashbuckling fashion, the pirates, played by a group of Somali refugees, had been up all night drinking in Malindi, the coastal Kenyan town where the film was based.
Once at sea, one of them couldn't stop vomiting. Choppy waters didn't help.
After Hodierne brushed off their pleas to take the sick man home, the actors seized one of the shoot's support boats, thrust their AK-47s in the skipper's face and ordered him to take them ashore.
"They jumped on, pointed the guns and were like "Hands up! Go!" Hodierne said recently in an interview at Vice Media's Williamsburg office, where he is editing the film.
"The guy knows there's no bullets in the guns," he said. "But these guys are so in the moment, so convincing that he's worried about a rifle butt to the face."
About an hour later, the actors sailed back to set, down one hungover pirate.
Hodierne scolded them for costing precious daylight.
"They were like, 'What? We had to!'" Hodierne said.
That do-or-die spirit is a persistent theme in the evolution of the upcoming film, which began as a 17-minute short shot guerilla-style by three young Americans in the slums of Mombasa and went on to win its category at the Sundance Film Festival last year.
A full-length feature, shot in Kenya last fall, is set to debut later this year as a co-production by Vice and Cleveland-based Think Media.
Cutter Hodierne, right, with an actor. The 26-year-old filmmaker flew to Kenya with three others in 2010 and filmed the short guerilla-style in the slums of Mombasa and aboard rented ships in the Indian Ocean. - KATELYN PARTLOW
On the surface, "Nets" is an action flick. Set in Somalia during the late-aughts heyday of Indian Ocean piracy, it tells the story of a poor fisherman who is cajoled into helping a gang of pirates hijack an oil tanker.
The ship in the film, the East Wind, is an actual 305-foot oil tanker based out of the Antilles. Many of its crew members play hostages in the film, with a few professional actors sprinkled in.
All of the Somalis were first-time actors, cast from auditions held at a Mobmasa nightclub and, in some cases, people Hodierne and his crew met on the street while shooting the short.
Eddy Moretti, Vice's creative director, said the film's gonzo spirit meshed perfectly with his growing media empire, which recently debuted a half-hour news show on HBO.
"It could have been a Vice documentary, but it's a feature instead," Moretti said. "What he's managed to do with non-actors, on the ground, in country… it's blowing my mind."
"It's really poetic and beautifully shot," he said. "My partners at Vice were all blown away. And that's a really good litmus test."
Hodierne grew up in northern Virginia making small films and dropped out of Emerson College to direct full-time.
Somali piracy first piqued his interest in 2009, amid the drama aboard the captive MERSK Alabama.
"From a filmmaking standpoint, there was something about the bravado and overall visual element of it I was hooked just on," he said.
After a stint as tour videographer for U2 - roadies nicknamed him "Almost Famous" - Hodierne spent the summer of 2010 working on a short script with his writing partner, John Hibey.
They pair wanted to frame the story from the perspective of the pirates. Neither had visited Africa.
After months of slow progress, "We said, f-- it, let's just go there," Hodierne said.
The two flew to Mombasa in October 2010 and hooked up with a local fixer, who helped scout locations, rent weapons from the police and secure a hook-up for fresh khat, the narcotic leaf Somalis chew for a speedy, euphoric buzz.
None of the actors spoke English, so communicating was a perverse game of telephone: the Americans spoke English to the fixer, who spoke Swahili with one actor, who relayed directions to the rest in Somali.
The planned five-week stint grew into a three-month slog during which the filmmakers were robbed, jailed, preyed on by hookers and shaken down by armed thugs posing as Kenyan soldiers.
In that incident, Hodierne, Hibey and another producer, Raphael Swann, were surrounded and handcuffed while walking at night along Diani Beach, a tourist spot south of Mombasa.
As the crooks jabbed their rifles and shouted in Swahili, Hodierne heard a cover band blaring from a stage a few hundred yards away.
They were playing U2.
"All we can hear is 'It's a beautiful daayy!' blasting behind us," Hodierne told Vice in an interview last year. "At the time, I thought it was going to be the soundtrack to my death."
The group eventually returned to the U.S. in December, and Hodierne, nearly bankrupt after blowing $30,000 on the shoot, spent most of 2011 cutting hundreds of hours of footage down to 17 minutes.
In November, the filmmakers learned it would be one of 32 short films to show at Sundance's Short Films Program in January. It took the Grand Jury Prize.
"I don't think anybody was expecting us to win," Hodierne said. "But when that happened, it immediately opened up all the doors."
After hashing out a deal with Vice and Think Media - Hodierne said the budget is "under $5 million" - the filmmakers returned to Kenya in October with a much larger crew to shoot the full-length film.
Seated in Vice's editing room recently, Hodierne said he hoped to capture the desperation that drives some Somalis to piracy, without either victimizing or glorifying them.
"It's not like Muslim extremism, or an army, where the guys a rallying around a cause," he said. "There's no ideology here, except to make money."
Walking to his monitor, he cued up a scene showing a pirate aboard a listing ship, singing a love song in Somali to himself.
The scene was improvised, shot on the fly after the actor began singing quietly to pass the time.
"There are no caricatures in the film," Moretti said. "It's real, because they are real, and Cutter is a sensitive enough director to show their complexity."