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It is seldom that one comes across a film that deals directly with some of the key issues of the modern freight and shipping business, but A Hijacking (Kapringen) does exactly that, a taut drama set alternatively on a cargo ship that has been hijacked by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean, and the offices of the Danish shipowner trying to secure the release of the vessel and its crew.

There was, of course, 2010’s The Expendables, featuring an all-has-been star cast (Stallone, Schwarzeneggar, Willis, Lundgren, Jet Li and The Loadstar’s personal favourite, Jason Statham) where the opening scenes on a hijacked ship in the Gulf of Aden feature more bullets fired in a few minutes of typically unrealistic silliness than A Hijacking would have, if it was shown back-to-back ten times.

A Hijacking is as far from Hollywood as it is possible to get. Directed by Tobias Lindholm, a scriptwriter on the TV political drama series Borgen (the two leading characters in the film, the ship’s cook Mikkel and the shipping chief executive Peter, are played by Borgen actors Pilou Asbaek and Soren Smalling respectively), it is shot in a highly realistic style that reminds one more of reality TV than cinema, and is a natural successor to the earlier Danish films of Lars von Trier, such as Festen.

The early scenes are almost mundane. Nearing the end of his months-long posting, Mikkel is seen shouting into the satellite phone on the bridge of the MV Rosen, steaming across the Indian Ocean en route to Mumbai to tell his wife and young daughter he would be returning home shortly.

We then switch to Copenhagen and the offices of the unnamed shipping company, owner of the Rosen, where the chief executive, only ever identified as Peter, arrives for another day’s work. Having interviewed more Danish shipping executives than is possibly healthy for one lifetime, I can personally attest that Soren Smalling’s portrayal is not so much stereotypical as archetypical – he absolutely nails it. Immaculately dressed, symbolising a clarity of mind that is largely absent of emotion, as evidenced by an early exchange with some visiting Japanese businessmen in which his skills as a master negotiator are demonstrated.

Shortly afterwards, we learn along with him that the Rosen has been hijacked, and the film settles into a pendulum rhythm that charts the tortuous negotiations that take place over the next few months, switching between the increasingly desperate and drained hostages and the fraught nerves at the company’s offices, where Peter has assembled a crisis team that includes Clipper Group’s real life group security office Gary Skoldmose Porter, who was part of the Clipper’s response team when one of its vessels was hijacked under similar circumstances in 2008.

As the weeks turn into months the tension mounts. We are shown how the adept Somali negotiator manipulates the emotions of the crew, and particularly Mikkel, to increase the pressure on the company to pay an enormous ransom. The psychological phenomenon known as Stockholm Syndrome, whereby captives become emotionally dependent on their captors and identify with their interests seems to be continually overshadowing the narrative, which in turn builds further pressure on Peter until his own emotion breaks his normally calm exterior in one particularly tense scene during telephone negotiations. As he shouts down the phone at Omar, the Somali negotiator, “leave my fucking crew alone,” we hear gunshots in response and the line goes dead. For several long agonising seconds Peter stares at his assistant… we all assume that Mikkel has been shot. These are some of the extreme negotiating techniques in practice today; it is business “red in tooth and claw”, to paraphrase Shakespeare.

It is a great strength of this film that no violence whatsoever takes place on screen. That is not to suggest that hijackings are without violence, but the hard truth is that very few seafarers have actually been killed by their captors – in fact, where hostages have been killed, it has largely happened during botched rescue attempts. What A Hijacking captures is the uncertainty and boredom, the way hostages veer manically between highs and deep lows; the way the pirates are also reliant on the crew – and particularly crews’ cooks – for their own continuing running of the ship and thus survival while negotiations are ongoing.

A Hijacking may well be the first genuinely realistic portrayal of the sheer horror and brutality of modern piracy,” said the chairman of the Maritime Piracy Humanitarian Response Programme, Dr Peter Swift. “Although not based on one hijacking case, it is very representative of the reality – it shows the stresses on not just the hostages, but the others involved.

“Despite the world’s reliance on goods shipped by sea the plight of seafarers running the daily risk of pirate attack and capture is not widely recognised. We hope that A Hijacking will help the public understand the horror that they face.”

It really is a splendidly restrained film, where surely the temptation would be to unlock the safety catches and go all guns blazing. It will be very interesting to see how Captain Phillips, the Hollywood telling of the story of one of the most famous hijackings of the all-American crewed Maersk Alabama, which will star Tom Hanks as the eponymous hero and is directed by Paul Greengrass, best known for the Bourne trilogy starring Matt Damon, compares.

One suspects that the same attention to day-to-day detail will largely be absent.

A Hijacking goes on general release in the UK on 10 May.

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  • Richard D North

    May 24, 2013 at 9:28 am

    Dear Gavin,
    (What follows is a copy of most of a comment I left on the MSR website, which had linked to your piece above….)

    I have only an amateur, newspaper reader’s, understanding of shipping and hijacking. Even so I doubt the veracity of much of this film. I don’t doubt that the negotiating tactics of both pirates and ship-owners are unattractive. I have some sympathy with the latter: for both public and private reasons it must make sense not to spend more on ransoms than is strictly necessary. Am I being very naïve in mentioning that – from the reports I come across – the Somali pirates are, typically, not physically brutal?

    I know the film does not portray much physical violence: but is the squalor and chaos of the ship’s captivity very accurate either? Is the ship’s crews’ despair portrayed accurately? Doesn’t its portrayal veer toward the gothic and the melodramatic?
    What’s more, is the film accurate about the chain of negotiation? Surely the ship-owner’s insurer, and probably its marine authorities, would be in play?
    Anyway, are we seriously to believe that a Danish ship would be in such a state of scruffiness and informality, even before its hijacking?
    As I say, I speak from little knowledge and would appreciate having my hat put on straight.

    • Gavin van Marle

      May 25, 2013 at 11:19 am

      Dear Richard,

      You’re being a little harsh. Veracity-wise it’s pretty near to the mark, bar a couple of points and the fact that shipping is a very wide parish – there are ships in all sorts of conditions from all countries. Denmark generally boasts first-class, top tier shipowners but also has its fair share of those who operate at the other end of the spectrum. Clearly, the vessel is not the most modern, and there appears to be large areas of rust on the gunnels and other deck areas – but it’s obviously an old ship. As for the informality that you mention, that will also depend on the shipping company and the captain, but I have been on more than one deepsea cargo ship that has similar levels of informality once it is steaming on the ocean.

      But there are other aspects to the film that ring remarkably true to life. Consider the way there are no subtitles to the conversations between the hijackers. Currently few pirates are able to speak English. In most cases there is little direct communication between hijacked seafarers and their captors, except through a few designated translators who, as is the case here, also act as the negotiators. The crews have no idea what is going on or being said and the audience in this film shares that experience. I recently saw the trailer for the forthcoming Captain Philips, starring Tom Hanks as the captain of the Maersk Alabama, which showed the initial pirate attack and showed them speaking fluent English when they first encounter Hanks, and it just struck me as false, exaggerating for the sake of effect.

      But you are right that, largely, there hasn’t been a great deal of widespread physical violence against seafarers by pirates – in fact, the only seafarers to have been killed after being taken hostage did so during bungled rescue operations. It’s simply not good business practice for pirates to damage the goods. That said, the psychological impact on seafarers on months or years spent in captivity in pretty brutal conditions shouldn’t be underestimated. One thing that the film doesn’t tackle is the considerable post-hijacking trauma that many seafarers go through. There is a large amount of evidence of the difficulties that they have reintegrating into their normal lives in the aftermath.

      You are also right in that generally negotiations will be taken by specially trained negotiators, in this film a specialist is called in and is played by someone who actually does that job for a living. Similarly the CEO character is closely modeled on Per Gullestrup, a partner at Danish shipping company Clipper Group, who did in fact deal directly with pirates when one of his vessels was hijacked a few years ago. So, it’s not usual, but it does happen.


  • Ali M Ali

    July 06, 2016 at 12:15 am

    I haven’t seen the movie, but I know for a fact there will be exaggerations.
    I am the negotiator and I see in retrospect, how the whole story got manipulated, how Per Gullestrup, for instance, became famous in the aftermath.

    Well, this article inferred me as a manipulative person by associating me with Stockhom Syndrome, which by the way, wasn’t something I was familiar with and all I know is one of those Eurocentric rhetoric. It is true that the emotions of the crew got involved, however it was because of some factors that I didn’t have control over.

    It is also imperative to mention that I had nothing to do with any Hijacking and that am not a pirate, but someone who inadvertently got himself in a situation that drained me psychologically and physically. I have all court transcripts and documents that show how much the pirates mistrusted me and even held me as a hostage by calling me the 14th which emanated from the number of the crew which was thirteen.

    The first factor that propelled emotions, that of the crew that is, is the bad decision Per Gullestrup reached which was to hire someone to do the negotiations. That person in hindsight, I find a preofessional from Great Britian hired someone else to communicate and also negotiate as he admitted in court over my trial. That man, Steven, as he called himself wasn’t up to task. It was my first ever negotiation, interpretation and association with pirates, however comparative to the gentleman, some what better. He did not have authority to say anything without first reporting to the British Guy, who will in return, report to clipper. Whereas, the pirate chief was on board all the time, and that need to wait was not existent on the ship.
    So instead of getting a response in few hours, the Pirates have to wait, and that took sometimes few days specially if it falls on a Friday, because the free world spends weekends with loved ones.

    Second, both crews, the pirate crew and the ship crew were very nosy. The Pirates, though not capable to comprehend English, were very skilled in reading expressions. On the other hand, the Captain spoke English and was always very close listening to each word am saying and sometimes even asked to talk to the negotiator. It was the Pirate Chief, who capitalized on that weakness and used the captain to talk directly to the negotiator, displaying involuntary emotions (cries). It was also a daily routine that the Captain gave out fuel and water measurements, what is left of provision and the crew conditions, in the middle of that report, the Captain always asked what was going on. Steven use to say to him ” we are doing everything we can to bring you to your loved ones”. That statement made them weaker by the day.

    Finally, from the outset, I called Per Gullestrup and left him a message, also sent him telex stating my lack of motivation to deal with Steven. He was not serious. Later in Washington DC, where I was in trial for being a part of that pirate crew, facing a Life Sentence, Steven admitted through questioning that it was not his first job. He also became so involved he was making a living out of the misery of innocent seamen. He admitted in this particular hostage crisis, he was making two thousand Dollars, I think everyday even if I don’t call and three thousand Dollars if we speak. Go and ask clipper, for I have a court transcript. So Steven was going to get paid better, if the negotiation takes longer. That is what caused the emotional drain the Captain and his crew were going through, as a matter of fact, I was the only hope they had and they trusted me better than their bosses in Copenhagen.

    In conclusion, Per Gullestrup answered my call in my second attempt, and agreed to take over the negotiations on condition THat Steven doesn’t get involved anymore.
    I was giving them intelligence on Pirates, their expectations that is. I kept doing that, and as a matter of fact, Per Gullestrup directed me to do the negotiation for him while not alarming the Pirates. With a court Proof.

    Both Steven and Per Gullestrup came to Washington DC Federal court as a Government witnesses. The Court saw and heard their discrepancies and found me not guilty after spending forty four months fighting in court while in jail. For What? For nothing, except that I was in Per Gullestrup’s written testimonial “instrumental in securing our crew and assisting us in getting them back to their homes”, and in return, helped The Unjust United States Dept. Of Justice keep in jail and their attempt to Give me a Life sentence. But God is all eyes and ears.

    Keep a positive mind.