Published May 12, 2011Continuing the somewhat unsettling trend of risking one's life in pursuit of truth, The Pirate Tapes is a highly stimulating watch documenting Somalian piracy.
Somalian-Canadian student Mohamed Ashareh decides to travel to his country of origin and using the strength of his familial connections (Ashareh's father is a highly respected diplomat in the country), investigates the history and present situation of pirates hijacking ships off the Somalian coast on a regular basis.
The scenes of the hidden camera hanging from Ashareh's neck filming his initial meetings with the pirates are a unique thrill, at once both matter-of-fact and totally breathtaking. Ashareh learns in-depth about the organizing and execution of pirate raids, and he narrates the film with an appealing clarity and fresh enthusiasm. The scenes of Ashareh finding his way around Somalia and working his way through increasingly treacherous and dubious henchman are as captivating as any undercover police film.
However, the intensity starts to fade as soon as it really develops. Not to reveal too much, but things get way too hairy for Ashareh right as the most thrilling part of the movie is beginning, and his life is immediately put in peril. The rest of the film deals with how to get the poor kid out of the mess he's made for himself. The producers even turn the camera on themselves as they frantically try to contact Somalian authorities, with ever-growing concern for the life-threatening venture Ashareh has undertaken.
The slick post-production elements, like swooping, animated texts relaying statistical information, can sometimes overwhelm the viewer. One wishes more time was devoted to delving deeper into the statistics, and with a brief running time of 72 minutes, there was certainly room to do so.
The bombardment of information makes the film work for repeated viewings, but can be overwhelming during the first watch. The history of piracy revealed in the film provides the viewer with valuable context, which would have been stronger if not left to brief, albeit detailed, footnotes. The most apparent thrill is in seeing a relatively naïve young man totally in the throes of legitimate real-world danger.
One wonders what Ashareh's motivations are beyond simply exploring what is currently happening in his country of origin, and being well connected enough to gain access to these pirates and minimize his risk. There is a vibe of almost callous thrill-seeking during the earlier scenes, until Ashareh has AK-47s pointed at his chest by masked men demanding money.
However, these gripes are secondary to the fascinating spectacle Ashraeh documents for the audience. The raw footage Ashareh risked his life for will enthral viewers. The Pirate Tapes is neither quite as probing nor as devastating as it attempts to be, but is a gripping watch nonetheless. (HBO Documentaries)