Interview: Tommy Pallotta & Femke Wolting talk "Last Hijack"

Interview: Tommy Pallotta & Femke Wolting talk "Last Hijack"

By Nick Leyland | October 08, 2014 02:55PM EDT

Directors Tommy Pallotta and Femke Wolting have spent the last 5 years of their life on an extremely unique project. The film is called “Last Hijack” and it will no doubt be one of the most eye opening cultural experiences you will have this year. The film revolves around a young man from Somalia named Mohamed who has turned to a life of piracy, hijacking ships off the coast of Somalia. The film is now out on iTunes but will also be released on all VOD platforms October 14, 2014. Here is what the directing pair had to say about this amazing journey.

Nick Leyland from The Movie Network: I got to watch your documentary “Last Hijack” this morning, and I was really shocked, [chuckle] actually.

Tommy Pallotta: Yeah? Is it good?

TMN: Well I was like, "Did these people really do this?" [chuckle] You know?

Tommy Pallotta: Yeah.

TMN: That's my first question for you, are you guys insane? You followed around some pirates from Somalia who have guns, weren't you terrified?

(Pirates from Last Hijack - Photo Credit: FilmBuff)

Tommy Pallotta: Yeah, well this is the complicated part of this thing. We actually went and intended to go do that, and initially we had about a... What was it, 18-month search, Femke? For the pirates.

Femke Wolting: Yeah.

Tommy Pallotta: When we first were looking for the right pirates. And so we had people on the ground doing video interviews and things like that, and what we didn't really realize at first was that there's an industry of fake pirates that you have to go through. And so we were having trouble finding people, then we finally found Mohamed who didn't really mind saying all these things on camera because he was really an independent pirate, and had no desires to leave Somalia. And at that time, it's an international co-production, and things got increasingly worse in Somalia, and the American Consulate's official stance was that they don't support any Americans going in there, which I am, and if anything happened they wouldn't do anything to help me.

TMN: Holy smoke.

Tommy Pallotta: And that also made the situation completely un-insurable, so we had to create a system where we could remotely direct this while we had two guys on the ground who were from Somalia, but had moved away and gone in to shoot news reports and cameras and things like that. So we created a system where basically we could direct via telephone as it's happening, and then they upload all the footage at night, and then we review that and give notes for the next day of shooting. We weren't in harms way at any time with this, but it was sort of a difficult situation to film and to get the movie in a way.

TMN: Oh I see now, that makes a little bit more sense. Because I was like, "Man that’s nuts " Especially that scene when you have the guys checking their guns in the desert or whatever.

Tommy Pallotta: Right, right. So that sort of intimacy was something that we didn't initially plan, like "Oh, well if we don't go then we get more intimate footage." But I don't think that there's any way that footage, we would have gotten that if I was there, or if Femke was there. That came from the familiarity of being around people that they... They sort of gave their trust because they know the language and the culture. And so in a weird way, it ended up working to the benefit of the story that we're trying to tell because you do get that sort of intimacy.

TMN: Now, one thing which was kind of strange as I was watching the documentary was about Mohamed, the main focus of the documentary. I wondered what you guys thought of him. Do you think he was a bad person, or just put in a bad circumstance? I mean he's a pirate, he doesn't take care of his kids, he seems kind of money-hungry.

Tommy Pallotta: Yeah.

Femke Wolting: The motivation to make this film was because we were really fascinated with pirates. We wanted to know who these people were and what drove them, because in the media it's always focused on the Western side. And we would see the news footage of these young guys in a little boat, and we just knew so little about them. And I think when we first were researching, we learned much more about piracy and the causes of it. We felt maybe, I don't know, that they were also kind of victims of globalization and of overfishing and the waste dumping having gone into their seas. For us it felt very much like the thing you see in films about gangs, kind of the peer pressure between young men, the way they treat women, and we try to portray, not romanticize Mohamed, and show the fact that he leaves all his kids and his wives, and doesn't treat them well at all. But at the same time, try to show... Like, the environment he grew up in, and the fact that he never knew any regular life since he was about eight years old, and to kind of explore what it means when you just grow up in continuous war for decades, basically. But then we also show this second character, a journalist who is about the same age as Mohamed and who has a radio show where he talks about piracy, and he tries to convince young men to not choose that life and choose a different path. And I think with him you also see there was an alternative, there are other ways than becoming a pirate.

Tommy Pallotta: Right, and his parents even say in the movie that he didn't have to choose that lifestyle, but he made that choice. And I think it's apparent, his motivation isn't more just money, but it's also the fame and notoriety, and the attention that comes along with it. But he as a person, like his character, he is a bit of a trickster, and it's definitely... We tried not to place any judgment on it but, I mean, certainly I think we found our way into the story through sympathizing with the parents, that they're the ones who want him to quit... And I think that was our sort of emotional entry point into this film.

TMN: Femke, you mentioned about the gangs, that was actually my next question. How would you compare this situation to the gangs in America? I mean is it even close?

Femke Wolting: Yeah, I made the comparison more like in kind of a psychological way because, of course, the situation in Somalia is not comparable in any way with life in the US, of course, 'cause the poverty is really severe. We interviewed many pirates and we also made an interactive documentary, and in the interactive documentaries, we also portray other pirates and you really see that people are dying from hunger, or can't feed their families. And that's a big motivation. But I think the comparison with the gangs came kind of more when we got more the psychological side of Mohamed. When he says that for the first time he was something when he became a pirate, right, and that people were looking up to him and he became something in his group of peers, and more that side, I think, we were comparing with what we had seen from gangs in the US or Europe.

(Scene from Last Hijack - Photo Credit: FilmBuff)

TMN: How long did the filming go on? And did you have any idea where it was gonna go?

Femke Wolting: Yes. The plan was always that we would go and, then once we couldn't get insurance and basically investors refused to finance the film if we would go, we had to find a different way of making the film. And then, first we wrote out entire film scene by scene and shot by shot almost only like a feature. And we knew that once the team would be on the ground things would change, but it really gave us an opportunity to, like with the team that was in Somalia that they would really know what we were looking for.

And then we were on the phone with them basically entire day. They have better phone mobile network than in US I would say, so. They would call in the morning and say, "Hey, Mohamed just got up. He was supposed to go to his mom, but he wants to go get a haircut now. What should we do?" When would make a plan for the scene and talk about the questions they would ask, and things like that, and then they would go after or even during, like if you would have other stuff to ask. And then we would go through the day like that.

And the journalist who was on the ground was Jamal Osmani. He's a Somali journalist who works for Channel 4, at the time mostly as a writing journalist, and he is a great, great journalist and very talented. And he was used to working like this for Channel 4 'cause they would have these remote correspondents, who would be directed from the UK basically. So, he was very much used to this way of working. And then a new thing for him was to work with the DOP that was then there as well, the Somali DOP.

So, we were very much in contact and, of course, it was very strange to not be there ourselves, but this was the kind of the best way to make it in those circumstances. And they would send the footage out of Somalia through FedEx, and we would upload it from Kenya so we would watch the footage and give notes.

Tommy Pallotta: Right. And then I think to answer your question more directly, 'did we know where we were going to get?' Because we did so many pre-interviews with them, we kinda knew what we would want it, but then there's a lot of really great surprises like the whole marriage ceremony and stuff like that, was something that really happened while those guys were on the ground. And then, they would be called back and they were getting ready to come back and they're like, "Well, they're going to do the ceremony, should we stay?" And we're like, "Yeah, of course you should stay, that's great." So, it's a combination of just doing the research and homework, but also being flexible enough that, when you do a documentary, anything can happen, especially in Somalia. And then making the right choices about when you stay and when you go.

TMN: Speaking of the marriage, it was such a eye-opening experience when I was watching the arrangement for the marriage.

Tommy Pallotta: Right, right.

(Wedding scene from Last Hijack - Photo Credit: FilmBuff)

TMN: It's kinda hard for someone like me to comprehend it. I've never been in those kind of circumstances or anything like that. And I also felt the same way about how much the pirates actually made in comparison to the amount that they had stolen. Was there anything that you learned that you just could not believe from their culture?

Femke Wolting: A lot of things I think. Like small details, for example, that I think the people are very strong and keep smiling, even though they talk about the most horrific things happening in their life, but they tell it with a smile. And we really had to... It was like that was something so foreign to us, right? And when we were editing, that was really... We had to work with that, because... Like when the mom talks to her son about the fact that she's raising his nine children, and he left them with her, but she smiles to him as if she's... I don't know, how would you say that, Tommy?

Tommy Pallotta: Yeah, well, there's just a lot of the cultural differences, and even the way that they tell the stories is really different, but I think, for me, sort of the attitude towards life and fate and what happens. I mean, it just feels like they're pretty tough and that they can deal with loss in a way that I can't, and I don't think most of the other people around me can just because the situation's so much more difficult, and so much filled with conflict.

Femke Wolting: Yeah, I think the way they deal with death, the way everybody has had so many deaths around them. Like everybody we filmed, they had multiple people around them die through the civil war or clan wars, and it's like very normal. It's not like the most romantic thing.

Tommy Pallotta: Right.

Femke Wolting: It's just a different way of experiencing life, it seems.

Tommy Pallotta: But then there's also the, more importantly, I think the things that are universal, which we tried to really capture in the story, which are these, family is very universal and wanting something better for someone else and greed, all these sorts of themes that we sort of deal with in the movie are really things that are more like, "Hey, it's the same story in a different setting in a way."

TMN:  There was a lot of great eye opening experiences for me personally, and I really enjoyed the film. And one thing I wanted to ask you about too, my last question for you guys is about one of the unique parts of this film,  the animation. You don't see this often. In a lot of documentaries you might see reenactments or things like that. What made you guys go to this route for this, and how did this get done? It looked like it probably took a really long time.

Tommy Pallotta: Yeah, well, we first started, I guess when Femke and I were talking about the subject. We started this movie four or five years ago, and just talking about it in terms of the subject, and then we're thinking like, "Yeah, this would make a really fascinating documentary," and then Femke said, "Well, why don't we just animate part of it?" You wanna go ahead and tell your reasoning, Femke?

Femke Wolting: We both have an interest and background of making kind of hybrid combination of animation and live action, and when I was reading about the pirates, it just seemed the perfect subject for a hybrid film because the core of the subject, like the piracy acts, like the hijacks, we could never film in a regular way. Like it's forbidden to film, because basically you compliance in a criminal act. So we initially thought that the animation could be used to reconstruct the parts that we couldn't be part of. But then, once we were editing and further along the process, we just were less interested in this kind of factual reconstructions, but became more interested in using animation as a way to show Mohamed's point of view, to make kind of subjective scenes of how he perceived the world around him through dreams he had or through his fears, or also memories of the civil war, and so the animation became more like that.

(Animated scene from Last Hijack - Photo Credit: FilmBuff)

Tommy Pallotta: I think it was important for us to have both, the sort of the gritty live action, because you wanna see that this place is a real place, and you wanna feel the ambience of that situation and understand, and see the reality of it, which is great. And then to go inside a person's subjective perspective and how they see the world was really fascinating to us. So all of the animations are really from Mohamed's perspectives in that. And I think that by having both the live action and the animation, it becomes a much wider spectrum of experience.

TMN: Yeah, I agree with you and I thought it was great, and I really enjoyed the film and I really enjoyed talking with you two about it, and I thank you very much, and I wish you guys the best of luck.

Femke Wolting: Thank you.

Tommy Pallotta: Thank you.

Tags: Last Hijack, Femke Wolting, Tommy Pallotta, Nick Leyland