Stories are powerful. They shape our ideas, beliefs, emotions and experiences. They can educate us, they can compel us to action, and they connect us. In the present-day, no entity does a more skilful job of harnessing the power of storytelling than the movie industry. Whether big studio features or more independent varieties, films are a medium through which we encounter and come to understand the world around us. So, what happens when this influence is applied to telling stories about issues in global health and development? A recent film provides insight into this question while raising further ones about the potential benefits and pitfalls of such dramatization.
The Pirates of Somalia (1), released in 2017, tells the story of young, wannabe journalist named Jay Bahadur, who travels to Somalia to investigate piracy, hoping to transform his adventures into a book deal and his big break. Inspired by a true story and New York Times bestseller, the film, directed and written by Bryan Buckley, stars Evan Peters as Bahadur. The film starts in 2008, against the backdrop of escalating Somali pirate ship attacks and civil war. The war was estimated by the Somali ‘Elman Peace and Human Rights’ organization to have killed close to 8,000 civilians in 2008 alone (2). In the opening scenes, Bahadur is a recent University of Toronto graduate, who is underemployed, unpublished and living in his parents’ basement. Upon a chance encounter with his favourite journalist (played by Hollywood heavyweight Al Pacino), Bahadur uproots his life and moves to the Puntland region in Somalia, armed with his idol’s advice that if “you want to make it as some big… journalist, you got to go…somewhere crazy” (1). For Bahadur, that’s Somalia: a place he proclaims that “Western reporters would consider…too dangerous to go…” (1). The rest of the film traces Bahadur’s efforts to embed himself among the pirates, aided by interpreter and confidant, Abdi (Barkhad Abdi, of Captain Phillips fame). Abdi acts as a cultural broker and assists Bahadur in gaining access to pirate leaders to interview.
Bahadur’s stated aim is to give an in-depth account of the previously hidden world of Somali pirates, and more broadly, tell the story of Somalia, as a fledgling democracy “amidst anarchy” (1). Throughout, the film demonstrates clear attempts to eschew stereotypes and depict camaraderie between Bahadur and his informants. However, it remains yet another representation of an African nation packaged for consumption by a white audience. Like the Last King of Scotland and Blood Diamond before it, The Pirates of Somalia uses a white, Western protagonist to explore and interpret African histories, cultures and political struggles. In this narrative, the young, inexperienced white male, whose previous knowledge of Somalia amounted to an undergraduate term paper, becomes the hero through which the story of Somalia will finally be told. In turn, the film is infused with the portrayal of an exotic Puntland – ripe with strange music, mysterious women and unusual drugs.
The film illustrates the complexities inherent in the politics of representation – raising questions of how, what and who is portrayed and by whom. Through film, the images and stories we encounter shape how we come to understand the world around us. These depictions are not apolitical but represent sets of choices taken by filmmakers that can have particular effects. For example, films that show Africans as tribal, warmongering and uncivilized and Africa as corruption-filled, war-torn and poverty-stricken, in the absence of alternative narratives, can help ingrain negative audience perceptions of a heterogeneous continent. Certainly, The Pirates of Somalia attempts to provide a more nuanced portrayal and even references issues of representation directly. In one such scene, Maryan, Bahadur’s love interest, asks him as he is getting ready to leave Somalia, to send her “movies or magazines that show…[her] people for who they really are,” as she is tired of “watching fools pretending they are Somalis in ‘Black Hawk Down.’” However, what goodwill might have been gained in this scene is ultimately undermined in the film’s closing moments. Bahadur, having returned from Somalia, and now known as one of the leading experts on Somali piracy, meets with a CIA committee. In the meeting, he pleads with the committee to start looking at Somalia in a different way “not so much as them versus us, but rather…as us when we were young.” While this statement might seem innocuous, this particular framing is infantilizing of both Somalia and the issues it encounters. In this, they are stripped of their complexity, oversimplified and rendered child-like. As David Lewis, Dennis Rodgers and Michael Woolcock (3) write in their paper on the cinematic representation of development, film is a primary medium through which most people in the Global North ‘encounter’ development issues. Therefore, it needs to be taken seriously. When we watch films like The Pirates of Somalia, we need to ask who is speaking, who they are speaking for, what they are telling us, and what the implications are. To this end, engaging with and critiquing such films is an important site for action on global health and development.
- Buckley, B. The Pirates of Somalia. (Echo Bridge, 2017).
- Sheikh, A. Civilian deaths in Somalia fall in 2009-group. Reuters U.K. (2009). at <https://uk.reuters.com/article/idUKLDE5BT070._CH_.2420>
- Lewis, D., Rodgers, D. & Woolcock, M. The Projection of Development: Cinematic Representation as A(nother) Source of Authoritative Knowledge? Journal of Development Studies 49, 383–397 (2013).