The year is 2009 and Mohamed Ashareh is a lanky 22-year-old Canadian using his college funds to finance his bold ambition.
Unlike other college dropouts who head East, Ashareh’s off to the Horn of Africa. He dreams of secretly filming seafaring gangsters, exposing their inner workings and forging his own success with a definitive exposé.
Camera packed and toting a plane ticket from Canada to Puntland — a coastal state in Somalia regularly associated with piracy — the Toronto native is all bravado, if footage taken at the airport prior to his departure is anything to go by.
Ashareh filmed himself walking to the plane while singing: “I’m boarding an airplane, for Somalia. Boarding an airplane. For So-Mah-Lee-Yah.”
Ashareh’s “in” to the pirate world? His clan name and his father’s status. Awad Ashareh was the minister of the interior of Puntland for years and the family surname is strongly linked to nobility.
In 1979 Ashareh’s mother left Somalia with him in tow and headed for Canada. His dad stayed behind to work in the Somali government.
He hadn’t been back to the country since he left as a 10-year-old. But he did his homework, knew where it was he should be headed and financed the trip using his scholarship funds. It was a risky endeavour but he was willing to take it on; he knew that he just might end up filming a groundbreaking documentary.
After landing in the port of Bosaso, Ashareh foolishly assumed there would -be a taxi at the airport. But Bosaso’s a far cry from Toronto and there was no taxi waiting.
“The officials wondered why I had arrived with no one to pick me up because I could have been kidnapped or killed,” he says. “They looked at my passport, knew who my family was and it was arranged that people from my clan came to pick me up.”
That was Ashareh’s first trip to Somalia as an adult. He managed to get a bit of footage and hot-footed it back to Canada, where he held a meeting with a film company called Palmira PDC after placing an ad for post-production facilities on Craigslist. The footage was disappointing and he didn’t have what he needed to make his film. But the idea for a covert pirate movie was a win and Palmira was champing at the bit.
To get back to Somalia Ashareh cut a deal with Palmira to finance his return. His plan was to pose as a financial backer representing a group that wanted to invest in a Somali pirate operation.
“Mohamed was busy getting a degree in computer programming when he first started speaking to us about doing a film,” says Andrew Moniz of Palmira PDC, speaking to the Mail & Guardian from Canada. “We were assured that this name would keep Ashareh relatively safe.”
Because Ashareh wasn’t a filmmaker, Palmira gave him a crash course in cinematography. “We went over a lot of the basic elements of handheld filmmaking, as well as teaching him to use all the cameras,” Moniz says, adding that this pirate movie was to be Palmira’s first documentary because such movies are tough to make, difficult to control and traditionally don’t bring in money.
Corporate film work, where the risks are low and the financial rewards are guaranteed, is preferred.
Ashareh went back to Somalia and, with the help of his clan, made his way from Bosaso, travelling south through the mountainous interior region of Karkaar in Puntland to an undisclosed location in that state where, he had been told, shipping vessels were being held by pirates.
“I told my distant relatives that I wanted to bring the issue of toxic dumping and piracy to the world, so they brought me face to face with the pirates — with men who could have killed me,” Ashareh says.
Roots of the problem
Somalia, a country plagued by divisive conflict, has not had a centralised government since 1991. It has been at the mercy of factions and warlords. This has enabled unscrupulous companies to pay high prices to dump toxic waste in the country’s coastal waters. Furthermore, illegal fishing trawlers have been looting marine reserves.
Plundering and toxic waste are regarded as the key causes of piracy, which the United Nations believes costs the world as much as £7?billion a year.
“The pirates were ex-fisherman who became Robin Hoods,” says Ashareh, explaining that the buccaneers he lived with for three months merely saw themselves as “taxing” those who stole from them by destroying their ability to enjoy a reasonable livelihood. “Other pirates were former thugs, warlords and killers that had lived through civil wars.”
The Canadian was taken to a remote coastal area where two vessels were being held — one with toxic waste and the other an Egyptian vessel that, he says, was fishing illegally in Somali waters.
“It is a hostile region where people are killed all the time. It wasn’t easy to walk around with a camera. I could have been killed by a local or by a pirate merely for pointing my camera at them. I filmed discreetly, using my handycam,” Ashareh says.
Initially he was refused permission to film on board the vessels because the pirates were suspicious, but after he met the “boss” pirate, Ashareh’s lineage started to work its magic. “Everybody I contacted came to know who I was and they were in awe of me being the only child from this ancestral family and having the guts to go to Somalia on my own. They were surprised about me being in Somalia and the film I wanted to make.”
Rebels with a cause?
Ashareh says pirate boss Ali Omar thought it “cute” that the lad with a broad Canadian accent was hoping to become a documentary director.
“Ali thought it was a ballsy move and, given that we are from related tribes, he didn’t mind me being there,” he says. Ashareh describes Omar as a man in his early 40s. “He’s typical of a Somali who’s just trying to survive. Like other people in the area who hijack vessels, he’s not just a pirate but a vigilante. He hijacks vessels that have toxic waste and are harming Somalia’s marine resources or raping their natural assets.”
Ashareh talks about the pirates wistfully, but there’s a cognitive dissonance. He repeatedly says how justified the pirates are in their endeavours. He reiterates how they are “normal folks” who speak about the weather, talk of family and fantasise about going back with the young filmmaker to North America.
“They dream about a future, just like anyone else,” he says. “There was one kid who wanted to be a doctor and saw this as a means of gathering money so he could eventually go to the Middle East to study.”
But in his own footage, things look different.
Three of the pirates holding guns in a vehicle look less like family men and more like cold-blooded killers. Away from the pirates, on film, Ashareh expresses the concern that he knows one of these men could snuff him out at any minute.
Ashareh comes across in awe of the rogues, more like a boy playing with guns than a detached filmmaker. In one scene he’s smiling broadly, bouncing over rough terrain in a truck and waving a pistol in the air, proclaiming: “This is my gun. This is my security. It’s a loaded gun. There’s no safety, they said — Is there a safety on here?”
The footage cuts to Ashareh firing a gun into the air. Then he’s back in the truck. “This is the biggest pirate thief in Somalia,” he says with a pleased look on his face, referring to the gun’s owner while brandishing the weapon.
Soon after that footage was filmed, Ashareh infiltrated a second pirate network under the authority of Jana DonAyar and was with the operation when it collapsed. Puntland authorities chasing DonAyar set their sights on Ashareh and apprehended him. During his arrest they discovered small devices on Ashareh that they thought were explosives and imprisoned him on suspicion of terrorism.
Ashareh’s family rallied to get him released and his father’s connections freed him.
The footage Ashareh shot was given to Palmira and, with supplementary film commissioned from Somalia, a documentary called The Pirate Tapes was made. In May 2011 the film debuted at Hot Docs, a Canadian international documentary film festival, where a smiling Ashareh was on hand to celebrate despite only getting a featuring credit.
Soon afterwards, Ashareh cried foul — saying he’d been robbed, that his tapes were hijacked and that Palmira were the real pirates of the movie.
In a YouTube recording in September Ashareh is shown speaking to the camera: “Hi, my name is Mohamed Ashareh. I am a filmmaker.” He relays the details of his trip and his return to Canada and says that Palmira destroyed his film and “compromised the truth and the voices of the Somali people. They literally took my footages [sic], destroyed the film and annihilated my existence.”
Moniz disputes this. “Filmmaking is a collaborative effort and early on, before he went to Somalia, it was clearly written and discussed in contracts that Palmira would retain ownership of the footage and the film; it’s the production company that funded the entire film, after all.”
Since living with the pirates, Ashareh has launched a number of abortive fundraising schemes to supposedly raise funds for Somali crisis relief. The endeavours are amateurish and filled with pleas from Ashareh like: “My Somalia is RadioActive She is Toxic Shes been dumped and forgotten [sic].”
In his interviews with the M&G Ashareh repeatedly insisted he is a documentary film director and demanded that “the truth be told about Somalia and Palmira”. But aside from embittered YouTube rants and recutting old video footage into a promo for a documentary that, he says, will reveal the “truth” about Palmira’s alleged “piracy”, there is no evidence of Ashareh’s directorial talent. The promo was removed from numerous video-sharing sites after copyright claims lodged by the Canadian film company.
Meanwhile, The Pirate Tapes has aired on a number of networks, more recently on a Fox channel in South Africa. It is, at best, amateurish and unremarkable.
Back in Somalia the pirates continue to plunder.
Toxic waste continues to diminish natural resources. Fishing resources are depleted. And in many coastal areas crime is seen as the solution to poverty. In reality, as in the film, the situation is fraught, messy and complex. Piracy is a complex web with multiple chains of exploitation, a problem nowhere near being solved. As shown in The Pirate Tapes, there is greed, need, criminal opportunity — and those who exploit the situation.
The Pirate Tapes airs on FX Only in Africa on TopTV on December 18. Watch a preview of The Pirate Tapes by Palmira at thepiratetapes.com.
View Ashareh’s response here.
Mohamed Ashareh’s site on Tumblr: mohamedashareh.tumblr.com