When Bryan Buckley tried to describe what life was like in Somalia to his crew working on the 2012 short “Asad,” it was impossible to actually take them to the war-torn region for it would be too dangerous. So instead he referred them to Jay Bahadur’s “The Pirates of Somalia” as the definitive resource — in fact, it could be considered the only resource as Bahadur was one of the few Western journalists to dare to report from the country this century. In some respects, a professional film crew in search of the details to get their story right from Bahadur’s muckraking was an ironic twist given that Bahadur, a Toronto native who tired of his market research gig, traveled to Somalia in the first place to seek legitimacy as a professional journalist, having as much difficulty figuring out how to be a freelancer as he was at forging relationships with pirate warlords in order to tell their story.
By turning his attention to how Bahadur produced such remarkable journalism as much as the journalism itself, which painted an entirely different view of Somalia than had commonly been reflected internationally, Buckley delivers a disarming, mischievous and ultimately moving chronicle of the reporter’s exploits in Africa in his second feature “The Pirates of Somalia.” With Evan Peters’ winning, devil-may-care inhabitation of Jay setting the tone, our own ethnocentrism is quickly allowed to fade away as the burgeoning journalist becomes a quick study in the local economy where the hostage-taking business is booming as more ethical occupations remain depressed. Holing up in the only wi-fi-enabled apartment in the area, Jay sends reports out into the ether like messages in a bottle, heeding the suggestion of a mentor (Al Pacino) who laughed off his goal of going to Harvard in order to get education, and instead teams up with a local fixer (Barkhad Abdi) who puts him in touch with all the major players. Adopting the alternative currency of the local social lubricant khat to get people to talk to him on record, he not only starts breaking exclusives, but shows a gift for making the incredibly complex socioeconomic conditions in the region digestible to rest of the world.
One senses that beyond a humanitarian interest born from when Buckley was first brought in by the U.N. to make a documentary about the region predating “Asad,” the writer/director is a perfect fit to tell this story given his ability, like Bahadur’s, to distill big ideas to their essence and present them in a compelling way as he’s been long considered one of the best helmers in the advertising world. (Know it or not, you’ve likely seen his work, as recently as the ubiquitous Verizon ads currently on the air with Thomas Middleditch.) In “The Pirates of Somalia,” Bahadur’s true-life adventures and the richness of Somali culture are captivating enough, but Buckley uses every trick in his toolbox from psychedelic animation to arch narration to offer a fresh perspective on what you’re seeing and to understand it anew.
Remarkably, Bahadur and Peters, the man playing him, didn’t lay eyes on each other before production on “The Pirates of Somalia” started, but a day after the film’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival (where it was initially titled “Dabka”), where not so coincidentally Buckley’s “Asad” first began its march towards an Oscar nomination, both were in good spirits about the end result and shared their experience of putting the film together.
What was it like when the two of you first met?
Evan Peters: God, that was really towards the end [of the shoot], wasn’t it? The airport stuff.
Jay Bahadur: I just went down to the set for one day, and I think it was the day you guys wrapped shooting.
Evan Peters: Yeah, it was close.
Jay Bahadur: I was basically in awe of what was going on. I met Evan, but I didn’t want to get in the way because they were filming and I had my scene in the afternoon — the scene where I was shot in the runway [of the airport tarmac], so it was two hours of makeup. My first impression was “Fuck, acting is a lot of work.” [laughs] Until that point, I hadn’t thought of how much work it was, but it was just a surreal experience.
Did you actually get a choice as far as what role you could have for your cameo?
Jay Bahadur: I wanted to be a pirate, but they wouldn’t cast me! It was weird. I was playing a BBC journalist, but obviously, I didn’t have the accent, so maybe we’ll say CNN journalist and it was [additionally] weird because I was acting out one of my nightmares — literally in the film, it is a nightmare I’m having where I’m being shot in the runway, and [then] that’s me in the scene, so it was really quite scary because this is something I had imagined happening to me. But I didn’t get a choice.
Evan, what got you interested in playing Jay?
Evan Peters: Jay’s story was pretty incredible and very enlightening on the Somali culture. I wanted to immerse myself in that and be a part of it and they were shooting in South Africa, in Capetown and I had never been, so I jumped at the opportunity to do that. South Africa is absolutely gorgeous and despite what I was told before I went over there, it’s not as dangerous and scary as it was made out to be — I actually went back after the film wrapped and went shark cage diving and climbed Lion’s Head and did all sorts of fun stuff.
Jay, was there anything that was important to you for this film to reflect?
Jay Bahadur: The most important thing for me, and this was one of the big selling points when I was first talking to Bryan [Buckley, the director], was that he wanted to cast Somali actors to make it true to life. They nailed that so well. A lot of these Somalis were not professional actors — [they] were refugees, but the interactions are so natural, it felt like you were in Somalia when you were watching that. Bryan even wanted to film in Somalia – he was that nuts. [laughs] He was finally dissuaded by the security of that – it’s not possible. But he was thinking of trying for quite some time.
Evan Peters: The Somali culture, despite everything that’s going on in their country, they still maintain a great sense of humor and are a lovely people, so that was [also] what we really wanted to capture. They’re very funny people and very sarcastic people and they’re always laughing, so it was a fine line that we walked.
Evan, was there a key for you in playing Jay?
Evan Peters: The Canadian in Jay, because it’s a running joke in the film — the juxtaposition of the Canadian fish-out-of-water [in Somalia] was all in the script — I got to incorporate that, and I’ve got to be honest, I do love Canadians, so I really liked the idea of being Canadian because they are so nice and friendly. [And I could identify with] learning about the Somali culture and just being in over your head. I’m the lead in the movie, [which] I hadn’t done since I was about 15, so it was a bit daunting in that area, [which] I could use that a little bit in the character. It was a great opportunity to learn and grow.
You hold your own against Al Pacino…
Evan Peters: It was honestly a dream come true. I’m a huge fan of his and just to be able to connect with him on that level in a scene with him was amazing. And [just as Pacino’s character] Seymour is mentoring Jay, I was just watching him, so it wasn’t hard to play it where he was a journalist I looked up to because Al Pacino is an actor I definitely look up to. It was beautiful.
Echoing Jay’s unconventional style of journalism, the narrative occasionally drifts into the fantastical — as you mention, there’s that nightmare sequence, among others. Did you know what you were signing on for when you gave the rights to Bryan?
Jay Bahadur: Yeah, that was just trying to get in the head of the character. Some of [the more fantastical elements] happen when he’s smoking weed and he’s high, so we’ve all been there, I think. [laughs] It seemed to work very well in the movie.
Evan Peters: The khat sequence, I thought, was fun [with] the animation. It served two purposes in one, telling the story of how they captured the ships, but also showing the hallucinatory effects of the drug.
Jay Bahadur: I loved that. Using cot to bribe the pirates to talk to me [for an interview] was quite true and thinking back, quite funny. I tried to make khat a big part of the book because this seemingly uninteresting drug is such a part of the culture and the violence in Somalia, especially part of the pirates’ lifestyle, and they really took that and made it a part of the movie, which I think they did quite well.
There’s a scene, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, where Jay first meets Boyah, called a Robin Hood-like character among the pirates, and it looked incredibly windy. Was that a tough day of shooting?
Evan Peters: It was so windy! It was actually freezing cold and it was the last scene we were shooting of the day. We were pressed for time, the sun was going down and we didn’t think we were going to get it. [laughs] We thought we might have to reshoot this [or] we might have [to voiceover] this whole thing, but by some miracle, I think the wind works.
Jay Bahadur: You definitely look uncomfortable — it adds to the tension. [laughs]
Evan Peters: Yeah, it made it very tense, so it was good.
What was the premiere like?
Jay Bahadur: This was my first movie premiere, so unsurprisingly it was really nerve-racking, but once I saw the audience getting into it and enjoying it, that made things a lot easier. I think the most surreal moment came at the end when Al Pacino kept saying, “Bahadur, Bahadur” and I had to step out of the moment for a second, like “Holy crap, Al Pacino is saying my name in a movie, in a theater with hundreds of people watching.” That was the unreal moment.
Evan Peters: It was great to see it with an audience and it was very fun to see everybody together again. I hadn’t seen Barkhad [Abdi] since the movie ended and to see Bryan [Buckley] and this guy, Jay – we didn’t get to hang out much during the filming, so it was surreal for me meeting [Jay’s] parents and his brother Jared, who’s grown up now. It was really, really cool to meet his actual parents…who said, I didn’t look or sound like Jay. [laughs] Which is very true.
Jay Bahadur: [smiles] My parents were making the rounds telling the cast and crew what they got wrong and what they got right.