The Backstory of Somali Pirates Does Not Fit Neatly on the Big Screen

11/25/2013 05:56 pm ET | Updated Jan 25, 2014

Captain Phillips is a cinematic feat of suspense: masterfully directed, superbly acted and beautifully executed. It is a thrilling and compelling ride into a harrowing journey through the pirate infested waters of Somalia. It also happens to be a superficial exercise. The tragic story of Somali piracy is turned into a pantomime.

The pirates of Captain Phillips are cruel, maniacal, murderous and fueled by uncompromising greed. Dark-skinned, emaciated, hollow-cheeked and garbed in rags and AK47s, they are modernized, Africanized caricatures of the stereotypical pirates of lore. When we first see Muse, played by Somali newcomer Barkhad Ali, the leader of the pirateband, standing before a frightened Phillips, played to everyman perfection by Tom Hanks, you can't help but think that this gaunt, menacing creature is the embodiment of the modern pirate.

The film puts up a façade of contextualizing the motivations and origin of these pirates. Muse at one-point laments that Somalia's fish had been stolen, that he could no longer be a fisherman. As we watch a hysterical and sobbing Tom Hanks pushed to breaking point, it is hard to sympathize. Other fleeting scenes and throwaway dialogue meant to humanize them, ring hollow.

What if the film had spent more than a fleeting two minutes in the village of the Somali pirates? What if we had met this group of pirates a year before they had taken a skiff to sea on that fated day?

In squalid huts in villages along coastal Somalia, young women give birth to deformed babies, with missing limbs, malformed heads, and tumors. Healthy young men and women develop abdominal hemorrhages, mouth bleeding, and cancer. For over twenty years, Somalia's coastal waters have been the world's largest dumping ground for toxic waste and chemicals. EU firms have taken advantage of the country's descent into chaos to cheaply remove hazards, including nuclear waste, from Europe.

Along the blue waters of the Indian Ocean, once home to thousand of species of fish, fishermen and their families die of malnutrition. There are no fish. European, Chinese and South Asian trawlers plunder Somalia's unprotected coastal waters, dramatically decreasing fish stock.

Over two-thirds of young men and women in these villages have no jobs and live in abject poverty. Only a few miles away, cargo ships laden with hundreds of millions of dollars of goods and produce slowly slide by. This was the origin of piracy.

Of course this is not the story of Somali Robin Hoods taking from the rich and giving to the poor. Piracy has had a devastating impact in these communities, creating a culture of violence, alcohol abuse, drug dependence and prostitution. High inflation rates from the influx of piracy cash has made it impossible for those living in poverty to make a living. Fishermen are threatened and their fishing equipment confiscated by pirates.

But the biggest victims of piracy are Somali youth. If the film had spent a few months with these pirates, the story they would see would not be that of simple fishermen turned criminals, but that of child soldiers. In one conversation between Phillips and Muse, when Muse mentions he has a boss he has to answer to, Phillips retorts "We all got bosses."

Muse's boss, however, happens to be a warlord, one who uses youth as the foot soldiers in a multi-million dollar criminal enterprise. Young men are coerced and threatened into piracy by these ruthless warlords. They are child soldiers of the Indian Ocean with very few options. The unemployment rate for youth is 67 percent, poverty is still rampant and cancer cases continue to pop up in coastal towns.

In 2011, piracy attacks cost the world $7 billion. Today, successful piracy attacks have been cut down to practically zero. NATO forces have begun patrolling the coast waters of Somalia. The pirates, however, are not gone. A few months ago, in Mogadishu, a Swedish diplomat was attacked and her translator and guards killed. The attackers were not terrorists. They were pirates. Unable to earn income from ransoming off hijacked ships, they are now targeting prominent businessmen and foreigners in Mogadishu for kidnapping and ransom.

Other former pirates in Northern Somalia are now working for illegal fishing trawlers, who hire them to protect their ships. Artisanal fishermen are attacked if they are caught near these trawlers.

In the last moments of the film, as I watched a small lifeboat helmed by three gaunt pirates, face-off with two US warships of gargantuan size, I could not help but think that the scene was symbolic of how the greatest security threats in this era are no longer superpowers locked in mutual deterrence due to the strength of their militaries and arsenals.

Rather, the greatest challenge facing the world today is driven by the poverty, insecurity and desperation of youth in the developing world. The child soldiers of piracy need to be rehabilitated. Youth living in poverty need opportunities and livelihoods. Communities devastated by the effects of hazardous waste need help. This is the true tragic story ofpiracy in Somalia, and it needs to be answered with more than military might and epic movies.