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Film Review

A Hijacking

Although piracy in the Indian Ocean, especially from Somalia, has been in the news since about 2003, piracy is an old, established way of life for centuries worldwide. The amount of piracy in past centuries was staggering. In the 16th through 18th C, reliable estimates are that a million people were captured and sold into slavery by the Barbary pirates alone. They captured ships and raided seacoast towns in Spain, Italy, and many Mediterranean islands. For the young United States, the Barbary pirates presented a real threat to American shipping, and despite a famous Marine intervention (".... to the coast of Tripoli"), the US paid tribute to Tripoli and Algiers until after the War of 1812, when an American fleet blockaded and captured Tripoli, destroyed their fleet, and ended most piracy against American shipping. In Somalia, the conditions for modern piracy were laid when foreign fishing fleets began catching so much fish that Somali fishermen couldn't survive. In addition, the Somalis claimed that foreign vessels were dumping toxic waste into their waters, killing vast quantities of fish. By this time Somalia was in a state of virtual anarchy, awash in weapons. Initially the fishermen, now armed, captured some of the foreign fishing boats and held them for ransom, which was usually paid. They soon discovered that this could be a profitable business and began capturing larger vessels, holding them for ransom, often for millions. By 2005, about 150 major ships a year were attacked, and roughly 25% seized. In 2006, 46 ships were hijacked and 47 in 2007. This continued until a number of countries formed a naval task force whose patrols have dramatically slashed piracy in that area. In addition, many shipping companies placed armed private detachments on board, which proved highly effective in deterring seizures. By 2012 there were under 20 attacks off Somalia, with fewer than 5 ships seized. But as the pressure on piracy increased off East Africa, piracy has begun to move to the West African coast.

Tobias Lindholm, a young Danish writer and film director, has directed his second film, a riveting thriller, "A Hijacking". Lindholm is an admirer of the Dogme 95 movement, with minimal production manipulation, such as minimal lighting, one-take shooting, and a spare, direct style. And "A Hijacking" is, if anything, spare, direct, and dramatic yet understated. But very very tense. A Danish freighter is sailing to India, with the crew looking forward to the end of the voyage and a return to their families. Mikkel, a shaggy good natured cook talks to his wife and daughter by shortwave radio. Each miss the other. The scene then shifts to the Danish offices of the shipping company, with Peter as the CEO shown intervening in some critical negotiations to win a prize contract for his company, clearly with good negotiating skills. He is in command, in every sense, controlled and arrogant. The film cuts back to the ship, the Rozen (the actual name of a ship hijacked in 2007), when it is hijacked by Somali pirates. We don't see the actual attack, but the pirates are shown aboard, are menacing and seem willing to kill some of the crew. Mikkel is selected by the pirates' translator to talk to Peter to persuade him to pay a $15 million ransom. Under pressure from his own company, Peter has hired a professional hostage negotiator. Peter is willing to listen to his advice, but insists on handling the talks personally because he is confident of his own ability to negotiate. "It's my ship, my crew, and my job". As the negotiator warned, the talks drag on for weeks and months, with the gap between the pirates' demand and Peter's figures still very large. The crew is suffering terribly from the heat, confinement, lack of food, and constant death threats. Some begin to disintegrate. Peter is under intense pressure from the crews' families and his own management to end this quickly.

Lindholm's story, taken from an actual hijacking, is as gripping and tense as anything I have seen. The film, much of which is shot on board an actual freighter, is like so many Danish films: austere, intense, and with very fine acting. Pilou Asbaek, who plays Mikkel, and Soren Malling, who plays Peter, are both unknown to American audiences but outstanding. The cinematography is often claustrophobic in the sense that so much goes on in small spaces, or even in large dark spaces, like the ship's hold. Outside, on deck, is another world, filled with open ocean and sunlight. Lindholm cycles back and forth between the company offices, a rarefied highly controlled world, and the ship, which is now an uncontrolled universe governed by dark irrational forces. "A Hijacking" is a brilliant, powerful film, unforgettable, and few leave the theater unaffected. Little question that this will be the Danish entry to the Academy Awards, and likely will be in the finals. Running time is 99 minutes, which go by in flash. In Danish with English subtitles. Just opened at the Landmark's Embarcadero and the Rafael in San Rafael.

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