It was just business, one slice from a multibillion dollar piracy industry. In 2008, Somali pirates hijacked a Danish cargo ship in the Gulf of Aden and demanded a ransom of $7 million for the return of the ship and its crew. The ship's owner countered with an offer of a few hundred thousand. Thus began a tense negotiation spanning weeks, then months, with the pirates' morally conflicted negotiator in the middle.
Thymaya Payne's wobbly but intriguing documentary, now in a week-long run at Facets Cinematheque, is two docs in one. Once the hostage situation is established, and the days start adding up in the negotiations between Danish CEO Per Gullestrup and Somali middleman Ishmael Ali, "Stolen Seas" steps back and takes time, too much time, to PowerPoint and talking-head its way through a presentation on economic forces in famine-ridden Somalia and how corrupt and venal government and indifferent or bungling international politics helped stoke the piracy crime wave. In the film's middle section you cannot help but wonder: Yes, but how's the hostage crisis going?
Payne and screenwriter Mark Monroe, who shaped the outline of the film, succeed admirably when they focus on Ali, whose ambiguous place in his own story becomes the way into all the other stories. Payne's cliched cinematics are less helpful: He's a sucker for phony-looking "dramatic re-enactment" footage accompanying (legit) recorded phone conversations. Also, the music is terrible — thundering, pounding, false.
And yet it's a strong subject, worth a look if only for Payne's determined debunking of the worldwide piratical cultural allure. Jack Sparrow, you're fired.