12/27/2013 12:35 pm ET Updated Feb 26, 2014

The Filmmaker and the Pirate Negotiator: A Curious Case


When you get your first call from the FBI, you never forget it. The conversation usually starts off as if it were a bill collector, but the voice on the other end of the line sounds more like special agent Starling from Silence of the Lambs. And when you hear the words "special agent", you almost have to giggle and look around to see if you are on some sort of weird reality show. But then it sinks in quickly. This is not a joke and yes you really are getting a call from the FBI. And yes, they want to talk to you. And yes, they mean you. I can't say that I was surprised they called. Yet in that moment, a cold electric numbness shivered through my bones and a new confusing journey began.

My FBI chat came about because I had made a documentary about Somali pirates and spent several years going back and forth to Somalia tracking down "dangerous" people, researching the pirate trade, doing what I had to in order to dissect a fascinating phenomenon. During the filming of the movie I met Ishmael Ali, a Somali American pirate negotiator for a hijacked ship called the CEC future. Ali was dynamic and keen to do press. A recent retiree, Ali had moved back from the States to his homeland and found himself working as an interpreter for several pirates.

As a well-spoken man at the heart of the action, he was the perfect protagonist for my film. Ali invited me into his home, introduced me to his young son and trusted me to tell his story. The final result of our exchange is a film that showcases Ali's incredible journey from retiree to international pirate negotiator.

The only problem in this doc-film-fairytale is that my film wound up playing a part in the U.S. government's decision that Ali was not just a pirate negotiator, but also an actual pirate. And, in the rush for "justice", they tricked him into coming back to the U.S. for a conference. Upon arrival at Dulles, he was immediately arrested, and has been awaiting trial for the three years since.

Last week, I was flown across country to his testify as a prosecution's witness at his trial. I spent a full day in a small room, reviewing jumbled out-takes and off the cuff comments never intended to be on camera, so as to authenticate my footage. I was then brought in to court, facing Ali and a large contingent of the Somali community -- a group I spent years courting and earning their trust, and was forced to authenticate my out-of-context, incoherent "seemingly" damning footage for a snoozing jury.

As I pointed out Ali in the courtroom, I realized that in one fail swoop, I would never be able to do this type of work with the Somali community again. I was done, even if it was against my will, I had become one of the "them", a tool for the U.S. government, an unwitting spy into the close-knit Somali world whom I had just moments before had limited, but great access to. Was my work putting away a hardened, dangerous criminal, or merely just dressing for a weak legal dog and pony show? It all seemed like such a waste.

Documentary work relies on at least a presumption of independence. Subjects often confide in documentary filmmakers because they are not traditional media. Filmmakers spend time with their subjects building up trust. If documentary films (along with out-takes, interview notes and off the record conversations) can be subpoenaed, this presents a significant hurdle in establishment of subject-filmmaker trust. It also poses considerable ethical issues for me as a filmmaker when I engage my subjects. As a documentary filmmaker, I am at all times collecting evidence. But now it is not just for me. I am now a tentacle. The end effect: My independence is dead.

My job as a documentary filmmaker is to delineate truth. Documentaries are meant to present complex and nuanced narratives in a rigorous and well-informed manner. I purposely left my film ambiguous because I wanted the audience to see both sides of view equally. Yes, I want to manifest change. I want to change how one approaches the discussion. I am not here to tell people how to think and feel. I am not here to judge, but to listen and report. I would hate for my film to become a mouthpiece for a cause. It's ironic thus that my film would be used to tell a jury how they should think about the totality of a man's actions.

I don't know if Ali is a pirate or just a negotiator. We met many times. There was a building of trust and of a relationship. A courtship. A dance. Ali could have lied to me, perhaps motivated by ego or a desire to impress, or he may have told the truth. I was not there to judge him. I was there to listen.

Journalists and filmmakers are kidnapped and killed every day around the world. In places like Somalia, filmmakers are already assumed to be Western spies. There have been instances where government officials posed as filmmakers luring a Somali pirate to Europe for a fake movie. It takes hours of work to convince people otherwise. And it takes courage for young filmmakers to negotiate themselves into these unknown worlds, armed only with cameras and inquisitive minds. With the increasing usage of documentary as a pawn in the actions of prosecutions, comes the increasing likelihood of further violence against journalists and filmmakers and less access into these worlds. And this is bad, not only for journalism, but also for global security. There is a need for independent information. Without it we enter the same echo chambers that led us into the Iraq war. This is a time when we need to encourage questioning, not discourage it with fear of government intervention.

Ali's verdict came in. He was found not guilty on piracy and there was a hung jury on the other counts. A wave of relief has washed over me. At least my raw footage was not there to help condemn a man to life imprisonment. But I can't help, but feel unclean about the entire experience.

Once I stepped into that courtroom and let my raw footage speak for me, the sanctity of my film feels violated, and no matter how nice the FBI agents are to you or how many times your friends and family tell you that you had no other choice, there is a creepy feeling that roils your innards every time you think about it. My film has been soiled, the creative process tarnished, and the bruise from the government's abuse of power shadows over my future films. Unfortunately, I know now that I will think twice the next time I feel the urge to look into the dark and see what's there.