A Somali pirate in Thymaya Payne’s new documentary.
A documentary that yearns to be an adventure movie, “Stolen Seas” can’t resist drowning its invaluable insights in thundering, drum-heavy music and flashing visuals. Magnificent in its thoroughness and nuance, this dense, multifaceted study of Somali piracy really needs to settle down.
Even calmed, however, the film’s bounty of knowledgeable interviews, dramatic re-enactments and found footage from multiple sources — including cellphone and audio recordings of hostage negotiations — is a lot to take in. Using the 2008 hijacking of a Danish vessel in the Gulf of Aden as a frame, the director, Thymaya Payne, conducts an admirably evenhanded investigation into the causes and consequences of high-seas high jinks.
Allowing room for competing theories (with Noam Chomsky chiming in for the little guy), Mr. Payne, who spent four years researching this project, gives voice to shipping executives, pirates and former hostages alike. Pungent comments from journalists and piracy historians add perspective and analysis, branding pirates “the midwives of globalization” and widening the net of culpability in surprising ways.
Meanwhile the subjects of all this talking, having traded tricorn hats for swaths of fabric and cutlasses for Kalashnikovs, remain difficult to catch and expensive to prosecute. Translators like Ishmael Ali, the weary Somali camel herder at the center of the Danish hostage negotiations, can find that playing frontman for criminals takes an emotional toll. By the end of the film, thanks to Mr. Payne’s unbiased efforts, you may sympathize more than you expect.