If George Plimpton and Hunter S. Thompson had a love child, it might have been a young Canadian fellow by the name of Jay Bahadur.
Back in the sixties, you may recall, Plimpton was a famed practitioner of something known as participatory journalism, wherein he would throw himself into vocations as varied as NFL quarterback, symphonic percussionist and stand-up comedian in order to write knowingly about the experience.
Bahadur went for a meta twist: His chosen vocation was journalism itself. Despite having no background in the field whatsoever – his professional interviewing experience evidently limited, in his job as an entry-level market researcher for a paper-products company, to querying store managers on their shelf-stocking practices – Bahadur travelled to Somalia in 2009 as pirates were seizing ships in the Gulf of Aden, and simply proceeded to cover the unfolding crisis.
(Oh, and Dr. Thompson's gonzo DNA? Bahadur regularly found himself chewing khat with the pirates, the leafy green addictive narcotic they insisted he bring to their sit-downs as the price of entry.)
Bahadur's fake-it-till-you-make-it approach yielded The Pirates of Somalia: Inside Their Hidden World, an acclaimed 2011 bestseller which a Globe and Mail reviewer praised for its "grasp of the minutiae of how local clans interact, and his ability to explain this seminal aspect of Somali culture to us."
And on Thursday night, an indie film adaptation of the book, titled Dabka (translated from Somali as "into the fire") and starring Al Pacino, Melanie Griffith, Barkhad Abdi and Evan Peters as the callow Bahadur, will have its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.
If what Bahadur did was bonkers, he aspired to convey a rare level of nuance and understanding about Somalia. The film, too, resists Hollywood-style cheap thrills. (Pirates! Shipboard shoot-'em-ups! Gold-toothed bandits!) But if its approach is more morally forthright than what normally makes its way to screens, it made the film a lot harder to sell.
"I think the idea of a guy who's going in really over his head, kinda clueless, not knowing what he's getting himself into – the spirit of that was conveyed [in the film] pretty dead on," says Bahadur, 33, chuckling over the phone earlier this week from Nairobi, where he is currently doing investigative work for an international agency. In the film, the fictional Bahadur, wearing a Toronto Blue Jays jersey and fussing with a tape recorder that keeps acting up, bluffs his way through interviews with dignitaries and pirates alike.
Director Bryan Buckley, whose only other feature is the impressively acidic 2015 Sundance hit The Bronze, may seem an unusual candidate to make a drama set in a war-torn African nation. Dubbed "the 30-second auteur" by The New York Times, he has more than 40 Super Bowl spots on his CV, including ads for Bud Light, FedEx and E-Trade. (Perhaps you remember his work with the chimpanzees.)
"There's always going to be that commercial-director stigma," Buckley acknowledges, patched in to the call this week with Bahadur. "Although, look, if you end up doing the right thing on a commercial, obviously it can be powerful and entertaining and honest."
In fact, it was a commercial, of sorts, which brought him into Bahadur's sphere.
In 2010, Buckley made No Autographs, a nine-minute documentary for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees which followed the Sudanese-born NBA All-Star Luol Deng on a trip to the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. "Both Somalia and the plight of the refugee became very clear to me, first-hand," he recalls.
Inspired by that experience, Buckley wrote and directed Asad, an 18-minute fictional drama about a Somali boy trying to resist a life of piracy, which nabbed an Oscar nomination for best live-action short film. "Jay's book was what we used for research to make that film. Literally, he had the only material that was available," Buckley notes. That film, which starred two Somali boys who had never acted until Buckley began training them, served as something of a template for Dabka. (The end credits for both films note all of the Somali refugees who contributed to the productions.)
With Asad helping to prove his bona fides, Buckley's production team, including the Canadian-born producer Mino Jarjoura, secured the rights to Bahadur's book after some back-and-forth with the author.
"When Bryan was sort of selling me on the project early, he said, 'I don't want this to be Black Hawk Down,'" Bahadur recalls. "That stuck in my head, because that film looked like they had cast Nigerians as Somalis speaking a Bantu language, not speaking Somali. Granted, those nuances would be lost on a lot of the audience. But to Somalis, that's sort of an extremely insulting portrayal."
That's not the only way in which Buckley's film differs from Black Hawk Down, which came under fire for a range of inaccuracies. For, while the possibility of danger is always lurking in Dabka – Westerners were, after all, being kidnapped, ransomed and killed in 2009 – Buckley tries to focus on the locals as much as the white man at the centre of the story.
He also saw the film as a call to action. Still, it is not overly earnest.
"If you preach too heavily, I think you have a hard time having people listen," he notes.
While the film is consistently engaging, it refuses to pander to the assumptions of a Western audience. "When you make a movie that takes somebody into Somalia, the expectations are preset – and this is based on both the media and Hollywood – of what's going to happen. And a certain degree of reality, for sure," Buckley says. "Part of what the film tries to do is let the mind [imagine what could happen]."
In the film, Bahadur's security handlers warn him against opening the steel shutters on his window; later, as he pursues a friendship with a wife of a powerful pirate, viewers may brace for the Hollywood-inevitable reprisal.
But since – spoiler alert – nothing too bad ended up happening to Bahadur during his three months in the country, Buckley faced a challenge: "This is why this is an independent feature, because, if you go into a studio, they're going to go, 'C'mon, man, somebody's gotta get shot here! He's gotta get on the [pirate] ship! Fist fight! Something?!"
Over the phone, he and Bahadur share a laugh.
"But we had to stay true, and just play with the mind, and build the drama around that."