The Last Hijack – Animation in Documentary Filmmaking

This year’s Darklight festival opened with a screening of The Last Hijack, a documentary telling the story of Mohammed, a Somali pirate considering doing ‘one last job.’ Particularly striking is the way film makes use of animation, and moves between this and documentary storytelling to add depth to the main character and tell the story of piracy from the point of view of the pirates.

The Last Hijack, documentary, animation, Submarine Films, new style documentary, somalia, pirates - HeadStuff.org
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Much of the film relies on a more traditional type of footage with which we are familiar – interviews with Mohammed as the film crew follow him around his daily business, interviews with his family and new wife who are opposed to him being a pirate and scenes of him assembling his cohorts to plan another hijack. However, it is the scenes with animation that really add to the film, illustrating events that could never be filmed and offering a deeper insight into Mohammed himself. Interestingly, in the post film discussion, co-director and writer Femke Wolting (Submarine Films) explained that at the beginning, the animated scenes were a practical device, used for the parts of the documentary that it would be impossible, both logistically and ethically, to film – the hijacks themselves. The use of animation offers a way around this. The first cut to animation, for example, illustrates Mohammed’s recollection of the first hijack he was part of. As work on the film progressed, the filmmakers were struck by the power of the animated segments and the role of animation within the film evolved, becoming a way to represent Mohammed’s subjective reality, his fears and his dreams. From his excitement during the first hijack to traumatic childhood events, these clips offer a greater understanding of the main character’s motivations and desires.

Last Hijack - HeadStuff.org
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The animation moves beyond representations of Mohammed and his inner thoughts and offers a powerful symbol of piracy. The image associated with the film is that of a giant bird of prey swooping down to grab a cargo ship in the middle of the ocean.   This ability to move away from reality leads to questions about the use of artificial devices in documentary filmmaking, arguably the most innovative area of filmmaking at the moment. Examples such as The Green Wave, Waltz with Bashir and The Missing Picture all use animation of different sorts to play with the notion of documentary storytelling. These films also highlight the idea that the borders between fiction and non-fiction are blurred, and the truth is subjective. Documentary is another form of myth.

In The Last Hijack, the cuts to animation are the stronger part of the film and certainly add a depth that is otherwise lacking. There are some issues with the structure, and the moves between live action and cartoon do little to aid this. However, the animation adds an emotional truth to the story which is every bit as valid, and far more powerful than ‘factual’ truth. This film, along with others mentioned above suggest that perhaps there is something about this form in particular that can deal with sensitive, ethical issues, in a way that other forms cannot.

Featured image credit: NYFF

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