Correction: An earlier version of this review stated that Vice news has a NSFW section. It’s actually on the main Vice Web site. This version has been corrected.
“Fishing Without Nets” is a bit of a surprise, coming from Vice Media. The company, targeting millennials, tends to go for big splashes with ploys such as sending Dennis Rodman to North Korea. But Vice’s first feature film bears evidence of its growing maturity (though its Web site still has a NSFW section). “Fishing Without Nets” isn’t an attention-grabbing stunt: It’s a subtitled Somali pirate thriller starring African men who had never acted before.
Vice opted to produce the movie after a short version of the film won an award at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012. Writer-director Cutter Hodierne returned to Sundance this year with the extended rendition and took home another award — best direction, U.S. drama.
A Somali pirate movie elicits inevitable comparisons to “Captain Phillips,” but while the action here is similar, the story feels entirely different. Here, we see much more of the back stories of Somali pirates and the desperation that led them to this path. Abdi (Abdikani Muktar) is a fisherman whose hauls are almost nonexistent, so he sends his wife and young son away to somewhere more prosperous with promises that the family will soon be reunited. It’s a wrenching decision, especially after a couple of touching scenes between the three of them, but Abdi feels it’s the only option since he can’t provide for them.
Abdi comes across as sweetly timid, and his baby face hardly makes him a likely candidate for a career as a pirate. But as a fisherman he knows where the shipping lanes are, so one of his friends recruits him for a local crew.
At first Abdi resists, but once the reality of his empty home sets in, he relents. And before he knows it, he’s boarding a French ship holding a machine gun and looking like a terrified kid. What seems like a fairly straightforward task for the thieves — stealing the ship’s cargo — becomes complicated by the fact that the ship’s hold is empty. The most valuable commodity onboard is the crew, so the pirates take its members hostage, and the slow back-and-forth of negotiations begins.
Hodierne doesn’t rush things and he doesn’t succumb to the epidemic of quick cutting. He will hold a shot of a flag on the pirates’ boat flapping in the wind for an uncommonly long stretch, until it becomes both peaceful and ominous. As the hostage talks go on, Hodierne allows space for the tension to build, and the result is almost sickeningly suspenseful. Tempers flare, especially for one unhinged young pirate (Abdi Siad), and the safety of a hostage Abdi has befriended (played to perfection by Reda Kateb) is a constant source of anxiety.
Details count in this movie, whether it’s well-executed camera work or the affecting score. In the opening shot, for example, we follow Abdi down a path in his desolate village as the sound of his footsteps turns into the beat of an African song.
Unfortunately, the restrained story takes a turn for the silly toward the end as the writers attempt to pile on everything that could possibly go wrong, both for the pirates and the hostages. (Hodierne is one of four who worked on the script.) But a sense of reality eventually returns. The haunting final scene recaptures some of the desolation that the movie had so expertly mined.
★ ★ ★
R. At AFI Silver. Contains violence, strong language, drug use and brief sexual images.
In Somali and French with English subtitles.