As gas prices rise, your first thought probably isn’t, “I wonder if another ship has been pirated off the coast of Somalia?” But maybe it should be — Somalia and its surrounding seas are some of the most comprehensively failed nation-states in the entire world. Directors Shawn Efran and Adam Ciralsky plan to bring that information to light with The Project, their new documentary screening at the Tribeca Film Festival. The film follows the Puntland Maritime Police Force (PMPF), the first-ever Somali-born-and-bred counterforce to piracy. Featuring interviews with controversial Blackwater Founder Erik Prince and the U.N. arms embargo monitor Matt Bryden, and with shocking firsthand footage from filmmakers embedded with the PMPF, The Project takes the viewer on a sad, scary ride to a place all but forgotten on the map, except on the occasion when an unfortunate American gets captured by pirates.
P3: What kind of logistics go into planning a shoot in a war zone like Somalia?
Efran: Adam and I have spent much of our careers working in war zones, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yugoslavia and other dangerous places, but nothing could have prepared us for Somalia, which is the most persistently failed state in modern history. Much of the country is controlled by [al Qaeda affiliate] al Shabaab. There hasn't been a functioning federal government for 20 years, and, by one estimate, 80 percent of the national budget is stolen. It’s Mad Max territory, and this time we were on our own. We didn’t have the resources of a giant company to help if something went wrong, so we were extra careful about little details, like establishing check-in procedures; making sure our phones worked; getting all the proper [vaccinations]; making lists of people who could help us if things went to hell, etc. And, honestly, we just accepted that if something went wrong, we were probably up the creek without a paddle.
P3: There must have been many challenges while shooting. What kind of problems did you encounter?
Efran: In the first week of production, our camera crew was yanked off of a plane during a refueling stop and then held at gunpoint in a rival Somali province. This camera crew has about 30 Emmys collectively, yet they were accused of impersonating a camera crew of all things! It took two weeks for the mess to sort itself out. The crew was released unharmed, but it was a sobering start to the production. Then last year, our co-producer Roger Carstens was targeted for assassination. The bullet barely missed Roger’s head. Tragically, one of the men in the film was killed.
P3: So you and the crew were scared for your own lives?
Efran: Often, and with good reason.… Roger survived only because he has a strange habit of drinking a gallon of water a day. At the moment the would-be killer was taking his shot, Roger walked away to go to the bathroom. Thankfully, the bullet missed.
P3: What kind of crew do you need on projects like this one?
Efran: Telling these kinds of vérité stories requires a small crew, usually just one or two people. Big crews are intimidating and they take on a life or their own, especially in difficult places like Somalia. But if you’re just a guy with a camera, subjects open up. The result is more honest.
P3: What equipment did you pack for the shoot?
Efran: Our primary camera was the Canon 5D with a 24-105 L Series lens. For the money, there’s nothing like it, especially back in 2010 when we started filming. Some parts of the film were shot on a Sony EX-1, which was convenient but not nearly as pretty as the 5D. We captured audio on an external Zoom recorder.
P3: Why is it important to you to bring stories like this to light?
Efran: People need to know what happens in the worst places on the planet. It matters. Back when we started this film, Somali pirates were kidnapping thousands of hostages and hijacking hundreds of boats with cargos ranging from humanitarian aid to Russian tanks. Captured Americans, like Captain Tom Phillips, had the benefit of being rescued by a [Navy] SEAL team, but the majority of those taken were from nations that lacked the will or the power to save their own citizens. Hostages from India, the Philippines or other developing countries languished for years in unspeakable conditions, forgotten by the world. One of the hostages in our film had his ears cut off by pirates. The PMPF was put together to free these forgotten people. Adam and I had always wanted to make films, and when we heard about the PMPF, this then-secret force with its harrowing mission, we recognized the moment. Three years later, after nearly losing a member of our crew, we have a film that takes the audience into a world few people even knew existed.