The Last Hijack: An Interview with Director Tommy Pallotta


The Last Hijack: An Interview with Tommy Pallotta

Andrew Darley talked to Tommy Pallotta on the evening his new documentary, The Last Hijack, was released. Together with Femke Wolting, the film is a hybrid documentary which interweaves animation and interviews in describing piracy in Somalia. It focuses on one pirate in particular, Mohamed Nura, who recounts his journey into the dangerous lifestyle and the impact it has had on his family and others. Tommy Pallotta explains how film-making is both a means of escapism and an exploration of the human condition.

What sparked your interest in piracy and getting involved with the project?

I’m always interested in the underreported news stories. In 2009, I read a piracy story that spoke of how pirates were trying to protect their coast from illegal fishing and dumping. I started reading about Somalia being a failed state and for over 20 years they haven’t had a central government. I became fascinated in what happens to places where there is no central government. As things become precarious and things fall down, I wanted to know what happens after that.

What did you want to achieve by having animation as an arc within the documentary?

I co-directed this with my partner Femke Wolting and she suggested using animation to tell the parts that we could not really film. My previous work have used this hybrid approach too. It was a great opportunity for a documentary to go beyond the objective viewpoint. We saw how the animation could be a subjective perspective.

The opening visual of Mohamed transforming into a preying bird is quite striking. Was that image in your heads from early on?

The animation parts came together while we were editing it. We started to build the story to make a rough cut and then decided where we needed to have animation. With the bird image, we wanted to capture a feeling of escape but then there’s his transformation into the bird where he takes control and becomes the predator. It’s about the idea of power. We wanted to tell the story in a visual way that gives a glimpse into someone’s mind.

How did you go about building trust with these pirates?

We had a Somali crew so we had natives ask the questions. The reason why it’s so intimate is because it was natives speaking with each other.

Do you think they would have been reluctant with you?

If you put a camera on me, I’m going to change how I am and what I say. Similarly, it changes the dynamic when someone from a different culture speaks to you.

The film depicts the sinister side of how pirates behave, especially in the interview with the anti-piracy radio broadcaster whose brother was killed by pirates and lives in constant fear. Was it difficult to remain objective about the pirate lifestyle while making the film?

I don’t think I was ever objective making the film. You go into a story with your own ideas. I came from a very Western perspective, I’m from a very small town in Texas. I grew up thinking that I would never travel or even really thought about the rest of the world. There’s no way I’m ever going to fully understand their perspective. It’s a search and an attempt to broaden mine and the audience’s understanding. It’s human to seek out the universal things that humans, like Mohamed’s father’s desire to keep him away from piracy and wanting a better life for his son – that’s in every culture. Films allow us to experience a different, fantastic worlds but safely. You can see a Tarantino film with shocking violence but you don’t really want to experience it in real life.

It’s interesting how the animation delves into the anxieties and fears of these men, exploring the pain and loss that Mohamed grew up around which may have fueled his career decisions.

He had a choice in getting into piracy, his father says it at one point. When making documentaries, you can force it into becoming a story that you want it to be, but it always has a way of kicking back. If you try make it into something it’s not, the audience will feel it.

Was there any attempt made to reach out to captives?

We tried to contact the shipping and security industries, as well as insurance companies but they didn’t want to engage with us. We have an interactive website lasthijack.com where you can go deeper into the story. What happens on the seas, it’s still a Wild West out there. There was a time when everyone was benefiting from piracy, including the insurance and security companies. We do have interviews with captains who had been captured on the website. The focus of the film is to understand piracy from the Somali point of view.

Did you learn about yourself too while making this film?

Part of the reason we tell stories is to make sense of the world around us. Again, I grew up in a small town and didn’t have a huge amount in common with my peers but I read books. Those books meant so much to me; I read voices that were talking about the things I was thinking about. Film-making has been my window to the world – it’s how I got out of that small town in Texas.

Acknowledging the success of your previous films, do you ever see achievements as an indicator of your work or do you focus on storytelling?

Film-making is a career, but it’s not like real life. I’ve never had a mainstream success so there’s not a lot of pressure on me. I think the only thing scarier than failure is success. If one of my movies became a mainstream thing, it would be a real challenge for me. I didn’t grow up thinking I had to make movies, I started making them and I got lucky. It feels like I’m getting away with something every single time.

What do you think makes a great documentary?

A great documentary opens up your mind in a way that you could have never imagined without it. I love when they say something about the human condition and the world we live in. Documentaries can discuss things in a less artificial way than feature films. Ultimately, we just want to be touched.

The Last Hijack is out now in Irish cinemas.  


Categories: Header, Movie Review, Movies

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