2013 brought us two movies about Somali pirates hijacking ships at sea: “Captain Phillips” and “A Hijacking.” Both were more focused on the hostages and their ordeal while the pirates themselves were observed from a relative distance. Then in 2014, we got Cutter Hodierne’s “Fishing Without Nets” which is another movie about Somali pirates, but this one is told from their point of view. It follows fisherman and father Abdi (Abdikani Muktar) who, in desperation and for his family’s safety, joins up with a group of pirates to hijack an oil tanker with the promise of a lot of money. But as soon as the hijacking begins, Abdi tries to remove himself from the situation as it descends into increasing chaos and paranoia.
I got to speak with Cutter about “Fishing Without Nets” which originally started out as a short film which received the Grand Jury Prize in Short Filmmaking at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. This led to Vice Films financing the feature length version which picked up the Dramatic Directing Award at Sundance. The movie takes place in Somalia but was shot in Kenya, and Cutter discussed the challenges he faced as well as the discoveries he made during its filming.
Ben Kenber: “Fishing Without Nets” started out as a short film. How would you say it evolved from a short to a feature length movie?
Cutter Hodierne: Well, the hope always was to make a feature, and so the short was kind of made in support of that idea. So we wanted to make the short as a way of sort of researching and developing a concept for a feature, and in the process of making a short film we always hope to use it as a tool to raise the money to make a feature film.
BK: That seems to be more of the case these days. You and the makers of “Whiplash” really had a lot of success with that.
CH: Yeah, I think it’s a really natural model if you can end up pulling off the short film because you kind of work out a lot of things with your concept early on that you test things out, and then if you do a good job you can also have a really powerful tool to get the attention to make a feature as well. I think it’s good in every direction.
BK: I have always heard that filming on water is always very challenging. What were the biggest challenges that you had in filming this movie on the ocean?
CH: Shooting on the ocean is a really, really difficult thing. The ground that you’re walking on, it’s not ground but the surface underneath you is undulating all the time, and for the weather to just kind of change out of nowhere suddenly… You’re kind of at the mercy of all those things. It’s really difficult, and if you get seasick at all that kind of gets in the way. The ocean would just turn in a moment and you would have to cancel the entire day’s shoot. It’s really tricky. It’s kind of like outer space. The ocean is not so far from the idea of being in space. You’re way out in the middle of nowhere and it’s endless in every direction and it’s really tricky.
BK: You also went out of your way to use non-actors for this movie. What made you decide to go in that direction?
CH: I think that it was just kind of the only way. The way to do this movie in an authentic way involved non-actors. It was probably also our only option when we were making a short film. I don’t think this movie, our version of it, would have made sense with anybody really recognizable because it would take something away from the story, and I think you get such a great sense of reality from having people you are not accustomed to seeing and who also just inhabit the role in a really natural way. I don’t think there’s any other way to go about it.
BK: I also heard that you set up scenes for them but that you let them come up with their own dialogue. What discoveries did you make along the way with the process?
CH: Well, I discovered that Somalis talk a lot (laughs). You give a couple of these guys a license to talk and make their own lines, so they will go and talk and talk and talk and talk. So what I really learned was that the most important thing that they all needed to have, if they are going to give themselves their own lines, is knowing where the scene needs to end. They have their own lines but they have a very, very structured scene they were playing within. They knew kind of the beginning, middle and end of the scene and I think what we learned as we went along with the cast and myself and the translator was having an ending to the scene was really crucial. Having a defined place where the dialogue would end was really important. I wouldn’t understand the words but I would understand roughly kind of where we were in a scene even though I can understand the language. It’s amazing what you end up starting to recognize in that setting.
BK: You did a lot of research why you were in Kenya where the movie was shot. What surprised you most about your time over there?
CH: What surprised me most? Everything was always surprising (laughs), but I always felt like I was learning something new about how to operate over there. There’s something around the corner that I wasn’t going to be prepared for, and I think what surprised me the most was probably that I never really completely got the hang of it despite how much time I had spent there. You really feel foreign there even when you know your way around and you think you can talk the talk and this is that. Something will happen that will just remind you that you’re not completely at home no matter how immersed you feel. That was probably the most surprising thing. I was always learning something new.
BK: Other movies that have featured Somali pirates, we don’t always get to know them as individuals but in this movie, we do. Their mission in getting a hefty ransom is doomed once the infighting gets more heated, and at its heart this is a movie about survival. Was that what you were trying to get across as a director that people will do anything to survive?
CH: Yeah, absolutely. This is definitely a story of someone’s hope and quest for survival. Even with the new stuff I’m working on now I sort of realize that’s something I’m definitely interested in; how survival as a mentality informs so many other new things that we do in a more complex society today. Just the desire to survive is like a driving force in a lot of things we do, but in this case with Abdikani (Muktar, who plays Khadir) in the story, this was absolutely a show of when desperate times call for extremely desperate measures. The extreme that is piracy is a really clear show of how extreme the situation in Somalia is; that where you end up in desperation is with four or five guys in a speedboat in the middle of the ocean attempting to capture a ship that is 10 times as big or more, and everyone’s life is at risk trying to climb aboard the ship. The situation is so preposterous that to me the question always begged is, what is the preposterous situation that would lead somebody to that point? It’s a really extreme reaction so we wanted to tell the real extreme cause.
BK: One movie “Fishing Without Nets” reminded me of was “Frozen River” which starred Melissa Leo as a mother who resorts to smuggling illegal immigrants across the Canadian border into the United States. She wouldn’t be doing this kind of work otherwise, but her main priority is her kids and that overrides everything else. Looking at that, the story of survival is a very universal one and not specific to one culture.
CH: Yeah, and I also wanted this movie to have a little bit of a feeling like you’re in an action adventure film that is just completely inverted. You’re not accustomed to seeing all these action adventure film elements playing out in a setting that you would normally not be in. I wanted to work in a specific genre, so I think that’s about as an exciting thing to do with it as well.
BK: The opening scenes of the movie show the characters living in this decimated area that doesn’t offer them a lot in the way of opportunities terms of making an honest living or raise a family in. Did you see a lot of that in Kenya?
CH: Yeah definitely, and even in Somalia it’s really much worse. I think everybody like walks through a slum for the first time in their life and are kind of like, “Holy shit this is real. This isn’t just something in pictures.” It’s pretty affecting. It’s hard not to be moved by something like that and I think we really wanted to show, what if you woke up and this is what it looked like every day and this is your situation every day? How far will you get pushed before this doesn’t seem like a good option to go out and try to get rich? Yeah it was definitely intentional to show where he (Abdi) lived and where he came from.
I want to thank Cutter Hodierne for taking the time to talk with me. “Fishing Without Nets” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.