Piracy again raising its ugly head in African waters, with 30 crew now held hostage
Pirates in the Gulf of Guinea are now believed to be holding more than 30 ...
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.