Last Hijack is a documentary that only exists because of the incredible access that was granted to the filmmakers. But despite providing a sober and hauntingly frustrated glimpse into a world that most Western eyes will never get to see for themselves, this portrait of life as a Somali pirate is limited by what the camera can’t see. Effectively the Letters From Iwo Jima to Captain Phillips’ Flags Of Our Fathers, the film embeds itself on the shores of the Indian Ocean, chronicling some time in the life of a man named Mohamed as he comes to the crossroads that will define his existence: Should he embark on another highly dangerous (but potentially lucrative) tour of duty hijacking corporate ships for their ransom money, or should he hang up his rusted AK-47 and resign himself to a more modest life as a husband, father, and son?
Though Mohamed is ultimately used as a synecdoche of all the men he represents—and as a conduit to explore the sociopolitical situation that has seen Somali men become synonymous with armed piracy—co-directors Tommy Pallotta and Femke Wolting are nevertheless sensitive to the personal struggles of their subject. Last Hijack uses Mohamed’s story to extrapolate a broader understanding of his world, but the intimacy of their approach never allows the film to lose sight of how isolated Mohamed can be as a result of his individual hardships. As Mohamed assembles a team for his latest hijacking run, the small gaggle of lanky laborers chewing khat and negotiating over machine guns, it’s palpably clear that this film could be about any one of the people he recruits.
Beginning with its dreamlike opening sequence, in which Mohamed throws out an anchor line that strings him to the heavens and carries him high above the ocean in an unexpected nod to the prologue of 8 1/2, Last Hijack seamlessly cuts between unscripted live-action and pre-rendered bits of animation. Transforming Mohamed into a giant bird of prey soaring above the seas in search for his next meal, the film finds an apt visual metaphor for its central figure, one that combines the inherent violence of his task with the misery of his grim birthright. Similar in look to the rotoscope-style scenes in Richard Linklater’s Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly (both of which Pallotta produced), the animated sequences are lushly drawn and melancholic, even if the human figures move with a strangely inexpressive gait that smacks of an underfunded video-game cutscene.
Defaulting to animation whenever the filmmakers wish to depict something that was impossible for them to capture as it happened, Last Hijack uses the cartoons to compensate for their inability to shoot a live hijacking. Far more successful, however, are the scenes in which Pallotta and Wolting rely on the animation to explore the incorporeal terrain of memory, a tactic that strongly recalls Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir. It’s through this method that the film returns to the most tragic moments of Mohamed’s childhood in order to trace the clear and troubling relationship between the boy he was and the man he became.
Last Hijack is similar to Captain Phillips in its refusal to pass judgement, but Pallotta and Wolting don’t simply aspire to the facile realization that Mohamed and his ilk, who play such a sinister role in the news, are real people—they have enough respect for their audiences to assume they understand as much. The risk of such an approach in the hands of Western outsiders is that it becomes easy to overcompensate, and turn the demonized subjects into saints. If Last Hijack is able to keep the empathy at an ambiguous level, it’s likely because Mohamed is kind of an asshole. He doesn’t need the blood money he earns to survive; he’s addicted to it. He thrives on the parasitic respect that his riches afford him, each trip elevating him “from pauper to president.” He has an unspecified number of kids who he’s never seen, he mistreats his teenage bride (after dumping the last one in favor of a job), and he shames his parents.
Despite the film’s success at vividly recreating Mohamed’s past, his present ultimately proves impenetrable. It’s a problem that Last Hijack seems to recognize from the beginning, as it doesn’t directly engage with Mohamed’s internal struggle until its final minutes. By that point, the film has so richly illustrated Mohamed’s inner turmoil that the distance viewers are kept from his decision feels unfulfilling. Last Hijack introduces a community in which every young man aspires to be a hijacker, leaving Mohamed as nothing less—and little more—than the tragic id at the heart of his world. The film is desperate to know how many excuses one needs to commit a crime before they add up to a reason, but Mohamed no longer bothers to do the math.