Thursday, May 5, 2011

Hot Docs review: The Pirate Tapes [UPDATED]

Writer: Matvei Zhivov, Rock Baijnauth
Director/Producer: Matvei Zhivov, Roger Singh, Andrew Moniz, Rock Baijnauth
Political intrigue documentary
1 hour, 12 minutes

Not all documentaries are created equal. With the rising popularity of documentary filmmaking and filmgoing, there has been a concurrent increase in the number of docs with a high bullshit factor. There are well-known question marks like Exit Through the Gift Shop, Catfish and I'm Still Here. But viewers also need to be careful of business-friendly puff pieces like Cool It, a terribly misleading propaganda film that ironically accuses An Inconvenient Truth of being a misleading propaganda film. We should also be wary of hatchet jobs that pretend to start as flattering docs but change when they "discover" a dark side of their subject (e.g. Manufacturing Dissent: Uncovering Michael Moore or David Wants to Fly about David Lynch).

But The Pirate Tapes is a whole other species of bad. This film is based on the adventures of a young Somali-Canadian Mohamed Ashareh who decided to go to Somalia and film himself infiltrating a clan of Somali Pirates. He clearly didn't know what he was doing and it shows. But from the Q&A after the screening, profiles such as this one from The Toronto Star and simple deduction, it appears he was victimized by a second group of pirates here at home. When he returned to Canada, he sought help of a production company on Craigslist to make his film and found Palmira PDC. But he must have had it hijacked from him because he ends up receiving not a single production credit on his own film. Although he shot all the footage in Somalia and none of the others went there, all the credits go to Palmira's Matvei Zhivov, Roger Singh, Andrew Moniz and Rock Baijnauth.

What the four have crafted from the material is an amateurish mess that only hints at the possibilities. Relying heavily on a grating soundtrack, they turn the film into an overlong music video. Parts not filmed by Ashareh himself seem false and staged. One ends up questioning the veracity of every directorial interjection. It's a shame because there was an interesting doc there waiting to be made.

But more dispiriting is that clearly Mohamed Ashareh did the lion's share of filmmaking but the credited filmmakers have done everything in their power to bury his involvement. He receives the barest mention in the press kit (under "featuring" but not directing, writing, producing or cinematography where his key role is undeniable), and is not featured in any of the press photos on the Hot Docs website. The Hot Docs page for The Pirate Tapes doesn't mention his full name. Apparently, he was not even told initially that the film was playing in the festival.

This is clearly a sad case of a naïve filmmaker getting into bed with sharks and completely losing control and ownership of a project. Perhaps that's just as well since the project is an embarassment. But it has been picked up by HBO and I doubt that Ashareh will see a penny even though he was the driving force behind it all. This film is just a bad news story all around.

[UPDATE] I have received an email from Andrew Moniz, one of the credited filmmakers of The Pirate Tapes and he was surprisingly gracious in providing his versions of events. He explained the four at Palmira provided training, direction and financing for Ashareh's second trip to Somalia and said that Ashareh is indeed credited as a filmmaker in the theatrical version of the film. That is something that may have escaped my notice as the end credits are dense with graphics and information. I'm still not entirely convinced though, since his name and picture never should have been missing from everything in the first place. I'll see if I can get the opposing viewpoint and publish them side-by-side. Otherwise, I'll accept this is a complicated situation with justifications from those involved.

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