Who: Cutter Hodierne is a Los Angeles-based filmmaker whose first full-length narrative feature is Fishing Without Nets. The film also marks the first foray into narrative filmmaking by Vice, with its involvement overseen by Chief Creative Officer (and FWN Executive Producer) Eddy Moretti. Hodierne portrays the hijacking of a container ship off the coast of Somalia from the perspective of several fishermen-turned-pirates who reel it in. An expansion of his short film of the same name that won the Grand Jury Prize for Short Filmmaking at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, the 2014 version earned Hodierne the U.S. Dramatic Directing Award at the 2014 festival, and opened its theatrical release in September 2014. On the eve of its week-long run (10/3-10/9) at New York City’s Cinema Village, Camera In The Sun spoke with Hodierne for an October 2014 interview about his approach to portraying Somalia’s pirates and their language on screen, and how the country’s long period of upheaval has shifted perceptions of its ex-patriot citizens — as well as pirates in cinema
How did you first become aware of Somali pirates?
I first became aware of piracy in Somalia in 2008 with all the news coverage — specifically Jeffrey Gettleman of The New York Times, who actually went on to win a Pulitzer for his coverage, and Frank Langfitt of NPR. Both were doing a lot of really awesome coverage, and I just started to get hooked on this from their coverage. And as my ideas for what a movie about this could be evolved, I went from wanting to tell the bigger, global, every-angle story in one movie, to being more interested in what the pirates were up to, and what their side of the story was. Even before going to make this short, I probably started to glorify a little bit, and romanticize a little bit of what they were doing. And as I went over to Africa, and actually started to make a movie, I ran into my own kind of issues, where I sort of felt like I was a victim and a hostage to some shitty circumstances. I just constantly kept getting robbed in one way or another, and started to feel a little bit more like back in the middle. I definitely went through a process of romanticizing this, to having a deeper understanding of it from both sides. Ultimately what it lead me to was realizing that this is a really complicated situation that has a lot of gray area, and that ought to be what the movie’s about — that gray area.
What was your approach to cinematography on this film?
Alex Disenhof, who’s the cinematographer, and I — our pre-production plan was to kind of mimic documentaries, but to mimic documentaries that were really, really well-photographed, and took pride in how they were photographed. I think there’s a tendency for people to say, “Oh, it’s documentary-style”, and so they shoot it in a really crumby way to give it a “realistic look.” And I was like, “Well, there’s a way to do realistic that’s also kind of National Geographic-style gorgeous, or stuff in a lot of nature films, or even something like The Imposter.” There are a lot of documentaries that are shot really, really well. So we went into it with that approach. But with the improvised nature of lots of the scenes, we started to put the camera on Alex’s shoulder, and would find that when he had the freedom to sort of look around at what was interesting during an improvised moment — or I’d be whispering, “Look over to the left” — that kind of improvisation from the cameraman’s standpoint matched really well with the improv of the actors. Alex has a really good sense of what’s going on in a scene. So it definitely evolved as we went along, and we kind of discovered that roving look of the handheld. But I really emphasize, we really didn’t want it to be like pop-zooms, or anything where you’re feeling the camera in a way that you might in a documentary. So we had limitations. I basically wanted it to look very realistic, but also be a beautiful and stunning image piece as well. I didn’t want it to lack in that.
Do you think the film’s subtitles will be a problem for its U.S. release?
The subtitle question came up a lot. But the Vice crew was always all about making this as realistic as possible, and making it feel as much like it was made by the pirates — or some feeling of authenticity. So I was never gonna make this movie not in Somali. I think it makes it a little bit more difficult to release. You know, distributors are definitely afraid of foreign-language films. But outlets like Vice are showing that people can handle subtitles in America more than we give them credit for. I mean, Vice is one of the most popular channels on the internet. On YouTube specifically, they have the longest length of time that people stay engaged on a video. So they have a real audience, and a real audience that watches a lot of subtitles. I think they’re just slowly chipping away at the status quo of our dumbed-down version of what we think audiences need. So I had their support in making it in Somali. Had it been in English, it would have a very different feeling. As far as language as a theme in the movie, it’s definitely a thing — especially the element of confusion and misunderstanding. My experience in Africa was there would be just so many beautifully-chaotic misunderstandings, and they would be totally justified on both ends. I completely could see how that person would hear this wrong, and this would then trigger this series of events. So now imagine when your life is on the line, and those sorts of misunderstandings are happening. Or you think that this guy is trying something that he shouldn’t be trying, and how quickly that could lead to escalation. But to also then have this weird setting where you have Somalis, you have guys who are French, you have some Filipinos, you have some other African crew as the hostages — none of them is English their first language, yet English is the common language among all those people. So the idea that there’s this broken English that’s the main way that people are communicating, to me is an awesome thing to highlight. Because it just shows how chaotic that predicament of piracy is. The communication issues are definitely a huge part of that.
How are Somalis looked at in Kenya?
The actors are Kenyan by residence only. They’re born in Somalia. Many of them left Somalia from the war and the troubles there. So everybody is Somali, just with a Kenyan ID card. So it’s kind of like any immigrant in the States. In Kenya, there’s a huge Somali community, because of its proximity to Somalia. It’s right next door. In Kenya, Somalis are like second-class citizens for sure. Because of all the violence in Somalia, and a lot of the recent terror activity that’s happened in Kenya by Somalis, they are not very well-received by the local population of Kenyans. They definitely face a lot of unfair treatment as a result. But they live mostly in peace with people there. So it’s not like it’s constant. But currently, Kenya is at war with Somalia. Whatever that means, being at war with sort of a failed state. But there are U.N.-backed Kenyan troops in Somalia fighting the Al-Shabaab, which is a terrorist organization there. So they are technically at war with one another, and it’s tumultuous, and there’s a lot of suspicion of Somalis in Kenya. So working with Somalis there is a little bit tricky.
Do you think Somali piracy has changed the pirate genre in cinema?
I think there’s always some attraction of people who make fiction to tell stories of piracy. There just seems to be some curiosity. I guess it’s a criminal element, a nautical element, all kind of coming together. I think those factors make it really rich for good stories. These modern versions of it are just kind of a new incarnation of that same interest in piracy from filmmakers standpoints today. With the case in Somalia, it was such a jarring visual. You have guys in small boats attacking these huge container ships, and doing it way out in the middle of the ocean where you don’t expect there to be any trouble. It seemed like the most middle-of-nowhere place to be, and then there’s crooks running around. I think it’s hard to wrap our head around, which makes us interested in it. So I think it’s just a clear natural path for storytellers to be going down, to be telling modern stories of piracy as well. We are definitely influenced by a classic telling of pirate tales. I was reading Treasure Island while we were making the short, just looking for any kind of inspiration. Our story involves a mutiny, which I kind of didn’t realize until afterwards, and was like, “There’s some pirate subconscious coming out through this.” So I think it all kind of makes sense with what people gravitate towards and are interested in, for sure. The fact that there is almost like a micro-genre now of Somali piracy is just a testament to how rich the material is. I mean, there’s three fictional films now out that each take a different angle on the topic, and I think you could do two or three more. The same way that there’s lots of pirate movies in the Captain Hook, Pirates of the Caribbean, Treasure Island sense — it’s just when there’s a subject that has so much conflict, so much complication in it, there’s bound to be a lot of fictional reaction to that, for sure.