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The Sundance Diaries: Method Acting In Somalia

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This is one in a series of posts for the HuffPost Culture series "The Sundance Diaries," a month-long diary kept by the international filmmakers whose 64 short films were selected for the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.

We were drafting our first pages of a Somali pirate feature in the alleyways of Washington, D.C. over two years ago, when Cutter Hodierne (who would become the director of "Fishing Without Nets") suggested we go to Kenya to do research.

Maybe we would shoot a trailer. Maybe a short. Instinctively we knew it was the only way to write an honest version of the story we were trying to tell.

We needed to see the lives of people we could only find in small enclaves or smoke houses in DC. We wanted to roam along the coast of Kenya, a place that was attacked while we were there, and is continually attacked by Somali pirates.

While watching cargo ships coast into the Port of Mombasa, we'd suggest to one another--either in jest or not--that we should take a boat full of Somalis with guns, rush a cargo ship, and photograph what would happen. Is that how we do this? To portray something that happens with regularity in the Gulf of Aden, but has very few visuals for the world to see?

When we wanted to show our main character's life at home, we asked Abdi, would it be OK if we came over to your house with our cameras and photographed you with your family.

"Ok," he'd say, "Sure! We are brothers!" in his English inspired by hip-hop. We had to see what we were talking about, and in the process of seeing it, and to a mild extent living it, we began to portray it.

In less than a month, we will be in Park City, Utah, celebrating the premiere of our short film in the Sundance Film Festival. Our film peers behind the closed doors of Somali homes, through their passageways and into their markets, and onto their shores and oceans where they make their livelihood as fishermen or pirates.

It's called "Fishing Without Nets." It's a fiction, though everyone insists it's a documentary. Our characters were portrayed by non-actors, Somalis we found all over Mombasa.

We can't live like a Somali pirate, we can't even live like a Somali, but what we can do is take a room in a Muslim community near the Port of Mombasa and cast a neighbor who is buying cigarettes at a small shop where we buy cell phone minutes. When I see him at casting, he shakes me down for cash I don't have. He'll eventually disappear for a few days and at a certain point steal from us, but Chine's from the streets, illegally trades money for profit as a day job, gets locked up in jail twice on shoot days, and stays up most nights chewing miraa if he can get his hands on it. I'd call it method acting for anyone portraying a pirate, but that's too academic.

It's just Chine being Chine. He stalks instead of walks, laughs like a Peckinpah character, speaks an English of his own, bounces hard to hip hop. When we put him in a pirate's headdress the first time, forever more he's wearing the rag, on camera and off. I don't blame him. I adopted a similar look and was catcalled either 'Jesus' or 'Osama' in the streets. (Depending on who you ask in Kenya, they could be one in the same.) I'm definitely neither, but we're no longer looking at this story the same way we were back in DC.

To tell a Somali pirate story from the perspective of the pirates, we had to borrow from our cast's lives, from the stories of the characters we were portraying, and from the stories we had researched prior to our trip to Kenya. In this strange conflagration of real and not real, we found a powerful narrative.

Sundance is approaching, and I'll be letting you know about the experience from the "Fishing Without Nets" perspective, while introducing some of the coolest characters we've met, our cast. They're so cool, I think they ripped off our password-protected link to the short and put it on Youtube... Google it if ye dare. Or come out and see it January 19th at 8:30 at the Egyptian.

WATCH a trailer for "Fishing Without Nets" below:

FISHING WITHOUT NETS - TEASER from mynameisCutter.com on Vimeo.