Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips and the “True Story” of Somali Piracy

The complexity surrounding the social and economic drivers of piracy off the Horn of Africa was lost in the media-friendly version of the story.

Still from "Captain Philips."

Abduwali Abdukhad Muse sits anxiously in a federal prison in Indiana, while his Hollywood-constructed doppelganger prepares to leap onto a silver screen near you this weekend. Muse, a young man from Somalia, was sentenced in 2011 to nearly 34 years for his role in the hijacking of an American cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama. The case was historic as it marked the first time in more than 100 years that someone had been charged with piracy by the US judicial system.

During the 2009 hijacking, the captain of the vessel, Richard Phillips was taken captive by Muse and three other hijackers while his crew took refuge on the ship. In a dramatic assault by the US Navy, Muse’s colleagues were all fatally shot, Captain Phillips was freed and Muse himself was taken into custody.

Western media outlets looking for a hero framed Captain Phillips as an altruistic leader who had given himself up to save his crew from the marauding pirates. He was encouraged to publish a book about his experiences, A Captain’s Duty, which more recently has been transformed by Sony Pictures into a major motion picture starring Tom Hanks.

It mattered not that members of Phillips’ own crew contradicted the hero’s tale by sharing how the Captain’s ineptitude led to hijacking in the first place and far from selflessly giving himself up, he was actually captured by failing to secure the ship’s bridge. The complexity surrounding the social and economic drivers of piracy off the Horn of Africa was lost in the media-friendly version of the story as well as  any detail about the personal backgrounds of  Muse and the other hijackers. Hollywood however, can’t be bothered by such narrative inconveniences and so Sony Pictures sailed full steam into the production of their film, “Captain Phillips”, transposing Muse from the box of his prison cell to the box of the movie screen. Here’s the film’s trailer:

Enter Canada-based Mosotho filmmaker Kaizer Matsumunyane. Not content to allow the mainstream media to construct a lopsided perspective of piracy in Somalia, Matsumunyane set out to make a documentary film representing the Maersk Alabama hijacking and its aftermath from Muse’s perspective. Matusumunyane’s film, “The Smiling Pirate,” poses a direct challenge to the problematic representation of the Somali Pirates in the film Captain Phillips and aims to do something Hollywood has thus far been afraid to do: give a Muse and others in Somalia a genuine voice to tell their side of the story.

Africa is a Country spoke to Kaizer Matsumunyane about his film and why when Hollywood producers say, “based on a true story”, they really mean, “based on grossly perverse and unabashedly biased interpretation of true events.” For in Captain Phillips, more than anything else, it is the truth that has been hijacked.

As a filmmaker, why did you decide to make this film?

Matsumunyane: I think there must be something to the adage that we don’t choose stories, they choose us. I know it sounds cliché but I think there is truth to it. I remember I was watching news on TV and there was some excitement about how Somali pirates who had captured an American ship had been shot dead and the surviving pirate was being brought to the U.S to face charges of piracy. All of a sudden, they showed the surviving pirate arriving in the U.S flanked by federal agents. The pirate was a young boy handcuffed and chained, but he was smiling! I couldn’t understand who would be smiling in that position. That smile intrigued me. Commentators on the news were angry about the smile, but I wanted to find out about the person smiling in this situation and know why is was smiling. The more I discovered about the Somali teenager, the more I knew his story had to be told.

No one ever talks about why there are so many guns in Somalia and where they come from. No one ever talks about the illegal foreign ships on the Somali coast. For me, the story of Somalia is a story of how the powerful shape the reality for everyone. I also felt that since 9/11 people are labeled terrorists, Islamists, fundamentalists, pirates and many other things and we lose people behind those labels.

Your parents are from Lesotho, a country that is often simplistically represented by outsiders in terms of poverty and AIDS. Does that make you particularly keen to address issues of misrepresentation?

Being from Africa and being black, one is born misrepresented. Being from Lesotho adds another layer to the misrepresentation. Somehow Lesotho means HIV/AIDS. The thing is that the misrepresentations work well for others, especially governments and international donor agencies. I think that the moment one is conscious of misrepresentations in whatever form, they spend their whole life either fighting or fleeing them. I am reminded of the story from Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man. Being black, I think we have been so misrepresented that our true self is never seen, we are only the image bearers and anyone can throw anything on us and it sticks. I sometimes wonder what it is like to be white. I guess there is a different kind of burden and misrepresentation to being white. I think it is important to challenge narratives that try to make anyone “the other”. I always try to challenge that in my work. It’s true that until the lion tells its stories, the stories of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.

The socio-economic conditions that lead some Somalis to engage in piracy are not often incorporated into Western media narratives. How will your film reframe the issue of piracy off the horn of Africa?

There are reasons why the socio-economic conditions and other factors that have led to piracy in Somalia are not incorporated into the Western media narratives. For one, it serves to justify the unfettered actions of European powers on less powerful countries. No one asks why Somalia has so many guns when Somalis don’t make guns. No one talks about what the U.S and Russia have done to make Somalia what it is. No one asks how Somalia became three countries. No one asks what some of the ships hijacked by Somali pirates were doing on the Somali coast. There are many questions not being asked. No one can dispute that toxic waste containers washed ashore on the Somali coast and nothing was done about it. I tell you, if toxic containers washed up on the shores of the U.S, the world would stop. It’s the same with what Shell is doing in on the Niger Delta. The lives of the less powerful are just collateral damage, that’s all. Some animals are more important that others. What I want to do with the documentary, “The Smiling Pirate”, is to challenge the narrative that has been told about piracy and the people behind it. I think by giving piracy a human face, one breaks down the walls created to divide.

The first trailer (above) for the film “Captain Phillips” employs the narrative of good vs. evil to portray Muse and his three colleagues as skuzzy, sinister characters hijacking an honorable American captain and his crew. Tom Hanks in PR for the film has described his character meeting his hijackers as “the skinniest, scariest-looking human beings on the planet” and as “really scary-looking guys who almost resemble spiders with AK-47s.” What was your reaction when you first saw the trailer?

I was not surprised by the trailer of “Captain Phillips”. In a way, I was expecting they would do a good vs. evil kind of film and the pirates would be one-dimensional and savage while the captain would be the white knight. Americans love their heroes. They get them or they create them. That is the Hollywood formula. The list of bad guys keeps growing and they have more to choose from. First it was the Russians, then the Arabs and now Somalis. What disturbs me is that people don’t see through that. It’s very disturbing and makes me afraid of what else people are swallowing.

Is an actor like Tom Hanks, who plays Captain Phillips in the Sony Pictures film, simply doing his job as an actor in this role or is he complicit in perpetuating a-historical misrepresentations?

I am both disappointed and not disappointed in Tom Hank’s participation in the film. I am not disappointed because his work is to act and he is just doing what he is paid for. I can’t knock that. It’s his hustle. What I am disappointed in is someone who knows better and is conscious of the implications of the role and story he is doing, but closes their eyes. I believe Tom Hanks is intelligent enough to have done his research on the story and to have known that the crew of the ship that was hijacked despite the version of the story as told by the Captain. Captain Phillips himself came on CNN saying he did not give himself up for the crew, but claimed the media made it up. The crew even blamed the captain for the hijacking as he had been warned multiple times by a maritime organization to be more than 600 nautical miles off the Somali coast, but he did not heed the warnings as the ship was hijacked about 300 miles off the Somali coast. All these truths were swept under the carpet so that a hero story could be made. The truth always gets in the way so it becomes a casualty. The Sony Pictures film is based on very false premises and they know it.

The real Captain Richard Phillips published a book about his own heroism during the hijacking of the ship. Have you had a chance to read the book?

I have read the book by Captain Phillips and that is the book the [Hollywood] film will be based on. The crew of the ship contradict the version of the events as written in the book and place the blame for the hijacking on the Captain. Captain Phillips said in a CNN interview that he never said he gave himself up for his crew. Interesting thing is that the book is called A Captains Duty and the title says it all. For him to deny that he said he gave himself up and blame the media is very disingenuous. He also received at least seven emails warning him to stay clear from the Somali coast, but he did not.

Muse was sentenced to 33 years and 9 months in federal prison for hijacking, kidnapping and hostage taking, what were the peculiarities of his trial?

There were many peculiarities with Muse’s trial. First was the question of Muse’s age. When Muse was first arrested, Muse’s parents had said he was 16 years old. This created a problem because a 16 year old cannot be charged as an adult. Muse’s case kept being postponed while this aspect was being investigated.

While the situation of Muse’s age was still being looked at, Muse was kept in solitary confinement under what the U.S calls SAM’s (Special Administrative Measures) and this is mostly used for terrorism suspects. Muse said under SAM he had no access to radio, newspapers, television or anything, but was kept in solitary confinement all day for more than a year. He said he was starting to lose his mind. While in SAM, Muse tried twice to commit suicide. A doctor who was seeing him recommended that he be moved from SAM as he was starting to exhibit signs of PTSD. Muse says they kept in SAM to make him confess to being 18 years old and they said they would only release him if he confessed to that age. Suddenly an American agent said Muse confessed to being 18 years old and that led to Muse being charged as an adult. The word of the agent was never questioned. How the agent got the confession was never questioned. Muse denies ever saying he was 18 years old to anyone. Muse says that in court he wanted to talk about his age, but he was advised that if he challenged his age the government would make sure that his family never visit him or if they tried to visit him they would be made accomplices. Muse said that he stopped wanting to talk about his age because he feared for his mother after receiving this advice.

The State alleged that Muse was the mastermind of the hijacking and the leader of the group. Muse denies this and also says that pirates are foot soldiers, they just get orders. Anyone who knows anything about piracy will tell you that pirates are just hired hands and that the real people behind piracy are never on the boats, but on land giving orders. It is like saying that child soldiers are leaders and financiers of their units.

In Muse’s trial, the Judge repeatedly kept crying and talking about how Muse ruined the lives of the men who made up the crew and their families. I could not understand how a judge can be impartial whilst crying. After sentencing Muse to 33 years and 9 months, the judge said that she hopes that Muse’s sentencing sends a message to pirates that America will not tolerate piracy and will punish it to the full extent of the law. I think Muse’s case was just to send a message and nothing more. It was not about justice.

You’ve spoken to Muse directly since he began serving his sentence, what has he been able to share with you?

I speak to Muse as much as I am allowed to. All my requests to meet Muse have thus far been denied even when Muse has approved my visitation. I keep making the requests even though I know I will get the same answer. Muse says that Sony Pictures had requested to meet him countless times, but he declined their requests because he knew that they were making a film about him and were just going to make him a bad guy. At the present moment, Muse’s calls to me have been blocked. Even some of my emails to him or emails he sends me have not gone through. It seems like everything is being done to silence him. Muse has been talking about the glaring issues with his trial and says his trial was a sham. He says he did not understand English and what was happening [during the trial]. Muse says that he read the book by the Captain and many of the things in the book are made up. He even told me that the other three pirates with him were shot dead after he had made a deal with the American authorities to let them drop their guns in exchange for safe passage to Somalia. He said that just after dropping their guns and walking out of the boat there was gunfire and he watched his friends being shot dead. Muse is on suicide watch again and was recently on hunger strike. He is desperate and wants to have his case looked at again.

Did Muse ever tell you why he was smiling after his capture?

Muse says that he was kept hooded and shackled on the Navy boat after being captured. When he arrived in the U.S he says the hood was taken off. He suddenly saw people with cameras all taking photos and he was confused as to what was happening and he looked around to see what they were taking photos of until he realized that those people were taking photos of him. He says it was funny seeing all those people interested in him and he smiled.

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