Stolen Seas director highlights plight of Somali-American ransom negotiator now in a US jail awaiting trial on piracy
Daniel Howden¬†in Nairobi
As film-goers head to the cinema to watch¬†Captain Phillips, the Hollywood action thriller¬†about Somali¬†piracy, Ishmael Ali will not be among them. Ali is the protagonist of a different film also on release in the UK, which focuses on his role as a negotiator in another real-life piracy drama. Ali is in jail and about to go on trial in the US after being accused of being a pirate himself.
Thymaya Payne, director of the award-winning documentary Stolen Seas, says Ali has always insisted he was compelled to negotiate on behalf of the pirates. A US citizen who spent most of his working life as an electrician in New York, Ali returned home to¬†Somalia¬†but was drawn into the drama because of his excellent English.
“He saw himself as a counterpart to the British security consultants who represent the shipping company on the other side,” said Payne.
While the documentary was being edited in 2011, Ali was invited to a piracy conference in the US. He was arrested as soon as he arrived in Washington and has been held ever since.
Ali has been charged with several counts,¬†including conspiracy to commit piracy. If convicted, he may face life in prison.
Payne has been subpoenaed by prosecutors, and will have to give evidence against his film’s protagonist.
“It’s outrageous that I’m being made to testify,” said Payne. “The prosecution wants to nail someone and Ali was easy pickings. The US decided he was a pirate before even investigating; it’s all a bit of a show.”
The director said he wanted his film to tell a more nuanced story than Captain Phillips, the Paul Greengrass production that makes a hero out of the American skipper played by¬†Tom Hanks. That film follows the fate of Richard Phillips, whose cargo ship the Maersk Alabama was the¬†first US-flagged vessel to be hijacked off Somalia,¬†in April 2009. After US warships moved in, Phillips was transferred to a lifeboat by four Somali pirates until he was rescued by US special forces.
“Greengrass made a great movie but it’s not the story of Somali piracy,” Payne said. “[Somali piracy is] not about an American being held for three days and then rescued by US Navy Seals. It’s [actually] about poor people being held by other poor people for more than a year, while insurance companies and others decide what to do.”
In contrast, Stolen Seas reconstructs the hijacking and eventual ransom of the cargo vessel CEC Future, using interviews with the ship’s Danish owners, its crew and Ali, who represented the pirates.
The documentary, which won the 2012 Boccalino D’Oro at Locarno film festival, reveals piracy as a multimillion-dollar industry with a web of global interconnections. It draws together Somalis from different backgrounds, merchant sailors from the Philippines, western security consultants, and even questions the role of illegal fishing.
During a year of phone calls and eight days at his home in the northern Somalian breakaway state of Somaliland, Ali told Payne his story. The Stolen Seas director admits he cannot know whether Ali profited from, or conspired with, the hostage-takers, but questions why no action is being taken against others who profit from the murky world of illegal ransoms.
Payne said he was in the Kenyan port of Mombasa on the night Phillips’ cargo ship returned without its captain. He remembers a determined reporter from the US network Fox News standing on the quay shouting repeatedly at the dazed crew members for them to tell him their captain was a hero. The crew said nothing but have since gone on to¬†criticise Phillips’ role.
“The narrative was already set,” Payne said. “It was locked in.”
Within a week, Payne recalled, the Massachusetts sailor was being represented by Creative Artists’ Agency, one of Hollywood’s biggest firms who would sell the rights to his story, and his memoir was in production.