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To the Waters and the Wild: IFTN talks to ‘Last Hijack’ co-director Tommy Pallotta
08 Jan 2016 : Paul Byrne
With the Emmy-winning ‘Last Hijack’, the thorny issue of Somalian piracy is shown from the pirates side. Paul Byrne talks to Tommy Pallotta about geo-politics, hybrid filmmaking and getting beyond the David Brent effect.

It’s an ambitious film on just about every front.

Not only pushing documentary further into that blurred line between fact and fiction, as the subject becomes a willing actor in their own life story, Last Hijack also mixes rotoscope animation with the live action. Just to make sure that all the viewer’s senses are tingling.

“There’s so much at our disposal now, when it comes to telling stories,” says Last Hijack’s co-director, Tommy Pallotta. “Audiences are familiar with so many different cinematic techniques, not only on the technical front but also the poetic, storytelling front. Jumping time-frames, different points of view, different formats - all of these various angles and approaches have a particular effect. And if they’re combined well, it just adds another layer to your story.”

Thankfully, Last Hijack does combine many different storytelling methods and techniques pretty darn well, thanks in part to Dublin’s animation agency, Piranha Bar (more of which later). A very different kind of Song Of The Sea, this joint debut directorial feature of Tommy Pallotta (Waking Life, American Prince) and Femke Wolting (Another Perfect World, Cub) picked up an Emmy Award last year, and another at Prix Europa in 2014.

Plotwise, we’re in Eyl, in the northern Nugal province of Somalia, where we meet Mohammed, a desperate man keen to make some money. With the fishing industry in his town having been devastated after foreign trawlers destroyed local fishing boats, Mohammed decides to turn to crime to dig himself out of his $2,000 debt, rounding up a motley crew to go target those hearty big cargo ships cruising in their waters. Borrowing money for fuel, plus two ladders - one from a farmer, the other from an electrician - it’s clear early on that we’re not dealing with Ocean’s Eleven here.

Still, their first hit is a lucrative one, and the boys soon themselves being feted by their neighbours, whilst Mohammed prepares to be married. Surely a life of crime on the high seas couldn’t come to a sorry end...?

Paul Byrne: Given that we’re dealing with geo-political issues well beyond mere ships and robbers here, I’m guessing it wasn’t easy for Pallotta to always know how Last Hijack was going to end up.

Tommy Pallotta “Sure. You start out with a clear idea in your head about what you’re going to make, and then, halfway through, it’s ‘What the hell was I thinking?’.”

What were you thinking? It’s easy to put history in its place, but when you’re dealing with a living, breathing, moving target, that’s got to be hard to predict where you might end up.

“It was an organic process. It just started from this idea that this piracy wave was somehow romantic, that this small fishing boats going up against these large cargo vessels, it had a real Robin Hood element to it. Visually, it seemed striking, this David vs Goliath battle. And it begged the question, what would drive people to risk their lives like that? And as I read further about it, I realised that Somalia is a failed state, with no central government for twenty years, and I started to become fascinated in this dystopian culture without any real goernance. And then it became about desperation and surival, and it then became less reportage and more about existential search.”

The hybrid of documentary, live action and rotoscope animation is remarkable. How much of a hybrid are we dealing with though when it comes to fact and fiction?

“I don’t come from a hardcore documentary background, or even a hardcore filmmaking background, so, for me, it’s always experimental, to a sense. For me, there’s always manipulation involved with film - where you choose to point your camera, who you follow, the edits that you make. There is no objective reality to it - you’re always projecting your reality onto it. For me, documentary has always been like jazz. In record stores, jazz is where you put music that just didn’t fit anywhere else. That’s why I like documentaries, because if it’s not just a pure feature narrative, where everything is set up, then you put it in documentary. And I love animation because anything is possible there. So, I just approached everything with the question, ‘What’s the story you’re trying to tell here?’. It doesn’t really matter what format you’re using; that should always be the goal. Tell the story in a way that other people can relate to.”

You’ve said it took a while to find Mohamed, given that many of those you approached had faked a pirate story for the news channels. Was there a fear that you were going to be bullshitted by a David Brent here?

“Absolutely. Mohamed is trickster, and an interesting character because of that. The trouble for me was that I had to get the story through his version of events, and that made the process even more complex. To this day, he remains elusive to me. How much of this is real? How much is it his making himself seem more important than he was. Pointing a camera at anyone will have that David Brent effect, and you had to wait until you got to the editing room to see what the person had truly revealed about themselves.”

“There’s something very human about the storytelling though, and where people are being dishonest with you, and with themselves.”

Mohamed’s parents were hopeful that taking part in the film would turn him away from crime. Did it?

“I think society and culture was turning against piracy by the time we came to make the film, and there’s a parallel here of inner city kids getting mixed up in drug dealing. So, it’s a universal story, and the parents highlighted that. You empathise with them.”

You could play almost any scene here for comedy or tragedy - borrowing money and ladders for the big hijack, being very far removed from Ocean’s Eleven. Did you always know which way you were going to play this?

“You go into the editing suite to see what the story itself might be. Trying to force my take on it would look false. You just want the film to shape itself, like a piece of pottery.”

Has piracy had its day in Somalia?

“It turned violent, for one, and that has had an effect. Trying to get information from the shipping industry about what’s really going on, and they were harder to reach than the pirates. So, there’s a lot of unknowns here. What did reveal itself to me is, after going in believing we were dealing with Robin Hood types, I came away realising that Mohamed had a choice. He didn’t have to take this path. That was a surprise to me.”

The Emmy win last year would have helped to get Last Hijack noticed, but it’s still a hard sell beyond the art house crowd. Are you commercially minded?

“Every movie that I make I think it’s pretty poppy, and it’s only when I’ve finished the film and have some distance that I can see it might be challenging for some. I’m making films that feel right to me, and maybe that’s selfish, because the whole point of making films is to connect with other people. My films tend to become more popular about five years down the road, which is okay with me. I’d rather that over a big splash that vanishes after the opening weekend.”

You started out with your fellow Texan Richard Linklater, on Waking Life - using the rotoscope form of animation - and you’ve always been exploring new technologies, especially in animation. Given the constant leaps forward, in both how films are made and how they are watched, does that thrill you, or frighten you?

“Technology comes very easy to me, but, at the end of the day, it’s just special effects. If you don’t have a story, if you don’t have something to share with people that will mean something to them, the technology really doesn’t matter. It’s all about storytelling.”

The film found financing from The Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Ireland - how did the Greatest Little Country In The World get involved here?

“Ireland was one of the first people in. We did all the animation in Ireland. You guys have a great tradition in animation, and so, when we were pitching, we got a quick response from Nicky Gogan and Still Films. Piranha Films, the Dublin animation agency, got involved, and we had a great time working here. We’re definitely going to be back again.”

Last Hijack hits Irish cinemas January 8th, 2016.




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