Thanks to 2013’s Captain Phillips, public perception of Somali pirates is now tilted towards a military dimension of Navy SEALs coming and saving the day with well-aimed bullets. Somali piracy now exists within a Hollywood dichotomy: morally righteous Westerners versus anarchic evil Africans. If popular entertainment and education exist at opposite ends of a spectrum, then Captain Phillips’ informative foil would be the documentary Stolen Seas.
Stolen Seas launches an all-encompassing investigation into Somali piracy. Its ambitious scope starts with a comprehensive look at the problem’s root causes and then presents stories from different sides of the table. It contains interviews with everyone from Western shipping company executives to Filipino crewmembers; most crucially, it features actual Somali pirates and a Somali negotiator as well. The film impressively executes breadth. Disparate yet important issues ranging from the US intervention in Somalia to foreign overfishing around the Horn of Africa each receive appropriate airtime and mesh together coherently.
One perspective Stolen Seas glaringly lacks, however, is the martial one evident in Captain Phillips. In fact, the documentary casts doubt upon the efficacy of the military taskforce, implying that it is more distraction than solution. Unfortunately for Stolen Seas, the present situation around the Horn of Africa seems to indicate otherwise—since the beginning of 2013, there have been very few piracy incidents and zero successful ship captures, which most analysts attribute to anti-piracy measures on the part of both nation-states and shipping companies.
This is a surface level victory though, and even if its words are not prescient, the documentary’s intentions are sound. At its core, the film argues that Somali piracy is far more complex than Western civilization against Third World anarchy; though the symptom of piracy may have subsided for now, the core humanitarian sickness in Somalia and beyond goes untreated.
Stolen Seas’ unique value proposition is that, perhaps more than any other documentary on the issue, it helps us uncover the extent of piracy’s underlying contagions. This film has none of the swashbuckling action of a Hollywood thriller, but as a documentary it sails steady and straight.
Stolen Seas—United States. Directed by Thymaya Payne. First released January 2013. Running time 1hr 32min.