Why the Tower of Babel Wasn't Finished

José Sarmiento of the 2014 Talent Press reviews Tommy Pallotta's and Femke Wolting's take on Somalian piracy in LAST HIJACK, which features in the Berlinale Panorama.

An animation sequence in LAST HIJACK

Icarus. A man flying towards the sun, turning into a soaring eagle, comes into view in the opening images of LAST HIJACK (Berlinale Panorama). Though perhaps this metaphor is too revealing of the course of the story, it conveys a certain power that will be missed in the rest of the film. The creature snatches a giant cargo ship with its claws, a bird of prey in action: it’s an overbearing image filled with purpose and energy. Suddenly, animation gives way and documentary takes over as the film tells the story of Mohamed and Muse, two Somalian men who turn to piracy: one experienced, the other a newcomer.

Intertwining genres can be interesting, especially when the line is blurred between documentary and fiction. In LAST HIJACK, not only does animation come into play in some segments of the film (mostly in a metaphorical way), but there are also dramatized scenes that offer an interesting take on this Somalian survival tale. It’s all cinema in the end, one might say, but here genres overlap with each other in a disorderly fashion, fight one another, and diminish one another’s power.

The filmmakers have the obvious questions in mind: how did these two men end up with such dangerous lives? What has driven them and so many people in their country, to do such things? In a more straightforward presentation, the answers might have been fascinating (in all their difficulty, complexity and brutality), but here, the answers get obscured in a massive hodgepodge of ideas and styles.

Some of the best films in recent history have added fiction to documentary to good effect. The recent MILLE SOLEILS by Mati Diop also deals with issues of identity in a marginalized country. Jonas Trueba’s LOS ILUSOS is a perfect example of the fantastic results that can come when the line between documentary and fiction blurs. Sadly, the attempt of directors Tommy Pallotta and Femke Wolting to delve into their subject in LAST HIJACK derails exactly because of this blurring. Attempting to achieve an integrated view of the piracy problem in Somalia, Pallotta and Wolting instead offer a confusing and frustrating overflow of information. Maybe, like Icarus, these two filmmakers were flying too close to the sun, trying to make the ultimate merged-genre film.