Interview: Tommy Palotta, co-Director of ‘Last Hijack’

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Last Hijack tells the true story of a Somalian pirate torn between an exciting life of crime and family commitments. The documentary utilises animation to reveal how Mohamed came to this way of life. His hopes and fears for the present and future are eloquently captured in the film’s unique look. Last Hijack also reveals the wider-reaching implications of Mohamed’s activities on his family and community, while the political implications of piracy in Somalia are also delved into.

Now that Mohamed is engaged, both his parents and in-laws are pressuring him to change his ways and settle down into marriage and family life. Mohamed is not entirely sure that this is what he wants, but time is ticking by, and he must decide whether he is willing to risk it all for the thrill of one last hijack.

The visually striking and highly original hybrid documentary was co-directed by Tommy Palotta and Femke Wolting. Deirdre Molumby spoke with Palotta about conceptualising and realising this unique project.

 

Palotta originally started thinking about the film after reading an article about the most underreported and censored stories in the media today. ‘I knew very little about Somalia, the illegal fishing and dumping there, and realised I’d never really been exposed to the non-western perspective of the place. I started thinking about what we know about ‘pirates’ and how they’ve been such enduringly iconic figures over the ages, and I was also interested in what would drive a person to that way of life. The more I researched it the more I became interested in not only pirates but the situation in Somalia specifically.’

Palotta and co-director Femke Wolting had often experimented with various forms of media across their careers, finding that they offer a wealth of possibilities in terms of storytelling.  ‘My partner Femke came up with the idea of making Last Hijack a hybrid, which was our vision for the film from a very early stage. We also decided in the very beginning that it wasn’t going to just be a film but there would be an interactive documentary portion to it also, so there’s that aspect of it as well, which is available on www.lasthijack.com. The film portion of Last Hijack is quite traditional, taking the Somalian point of view, whereas the interactive documentary is the broader story and wider objective view, showing the geo-political and global ramifications of what is happening there.’

As one would expect from the subject matter alone, one of Palotta’s greatest difficulties in making the film was access. However, by focussing on the personal life and relationships of one pirate in particular, Mohamed, Palotta found that not only were more doors opened, but a focussed storyline developed that was orientated around this particular individual.

‘Anytime you embark on a project like this you do a lot of preparation, a lot of research, you have a particular vision for it, and then it becomes something very different along the way. To turn this complex project into a simpler story that would work in a film, we focussed on the subject of Somalian piracy, and started to work on a number of questions: what would I need to survive? What conditions does it take to have the moxie to take a small fishing vessel and try to take over a huge cargo ship? Those sort of questions really hooked me into what the film could be. As we were making the film, it changed as we realised that the window to the story was the central father-son relationship [between the lead, Mohammad, and his dad], and the father’s desire to save his son. Witnessing the collateral damage of piracy within this community and culture was another way in which the story evolved.’

Mohamed is one of Somalia’s most experienced pirates. The country is the worldwide capital of piracy: ‘Somalia is a failed state, it has had no central state of government for over twenty years, so, as much as the piracy angle interested me, the political situation in Somalia specifically was also very intriguing. I was interested in what happens to a society with no central government.’ While piracy was once admired as a means of making ends meet, now Somali pirates face increasing scrutiny and stigmatization both at home and abroad: ‘people idolised the pirates and then suddenly turned against them at the same time that the political situation in Somalia got worse.’

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The animated sequences of the film serve to recreate past hijackings and other memories of Mohamed’s. Through experimentation, Palotta found that ‘the animation could really provoke an emotion, capturing dreams and aspirations, and hopes and fears, in the way that voiceover aims at in fiction film, or how a novelist works in first-person narrative. It worked so well as a window to tell more about the characters, and it also liberated us from the shackles of the formal notion of documentary filmmaking.

‘I never really cared about how animation looked. I was always interested in how it told a story. So I never really know the rules, I just want to make something new. I’ve found that people really respond to new forms of storytelling and open up their minds to them.

‘The film goes in and out of animation sequences at about twelve different points in the movie, and the challenge was not make it feel like it was stopping and starting, but that there was a flow to these transitions. With the live action and animation respectively, we found this relationship between objective and subjective emerged. Film is really good at showing perspective in that way.’

Knowing that they had an interesting story, and that the way they wanted to tell it (namely from a Somalian perspective and as a hybrid) made it even more interesting, Palotta and Wolting went about pitching Last Hijack it to a number of international film companies. The Irish Film Board became the first financiers on board, which encouraged other backers to soon follow suit. Aware of Ireland’s history of successful animation and creative talent, Palotta approached a number of production companies under the guidance of Irish co-producer Still Films, eventually settling on post-house Piranha Bar: ‘You look for a collaborator who has the talent but also one who you can communicate with and will support you even if you’re not sure what the final product will be.’

For the animated sequences, painted backgrounds of oil paint on real canvases established a colour scheme, lighting, atmosphere and texture for the 3D world built around the backdrops. ‘We made the job much more difficult for the animators in that they had to match the setting and tone of these oil paintings. With oil paintings from far away it looks realistic but up close you can see the brush strokes and mistakes, and I loved the way that was used in the final movie. I love that the lines aren’t straight and the colours aren’t perfect. That’s what’s pleasant to my eye.’

Palotta and his team searched for a year and a half for their lead. ‘Mohamed was unique in that he had no intentions of leaving Somalia so he was able to speak very openly about it. From the very beginning I knew that he was a bit of a trickster and I thought that that was interesting because I didn’t know where he was coming from or what he was going to do. He has charm but there is also a bit of a dark side to him as well. I think they’re all characteristics that make a really interesting central character.

‘We learned that unlike with others, Mohamed isn’t doing this just for survival. His father makes it clear that he had other options, that this was his choice, which evades the idea of Mohamed as this ‘Robin Hood’ type figure. I didn’t find Mohamed sympathetic but I did sympathise with the father’s plight to save him from that lifestyle, and with the others in Mohamed’s family and community who were affected by his lifestyle. The ultimate question of the story becomes is he going to make the right choice.’

Final thoughts? ‘When you make a film like this, especially when it takes a long time to make them, it’s so great to get it out and get an engagement with an audience. I always want as many people to see the film as possible but it can be hard to get people’s attention because there’s so much content now. But there is an audience out there. Like having a child, these films have a life of their own later on. I’ve been very fortunate in that the movies that I made in the past were never really ‘mainstream’ when they came out and weren’t widely viewed, but they have a sort of evergreen quality about them and actually their profiles have risen over the years. You can’t compete against Star Wars, there’s so much noise there, but with the advent of VOD and other platforms, we can see that people don’t just want Hollywood but also real stories, and they’re searching for that hidden intimacy that you’re not going to get with the big budget productions. At the end of the day, sometimes you just want to connect to humanity.’

 

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