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Updated: Jul 30, 2018

Group of Southeast Asian pirates agrees to meet with a documentary film crew

Sitting down face-to-face with confessed career pirates made me wonder if I was getting in over my head. A few years back I was hired as a director and writer for a show called Asia’s Underworld, for the Crime and Investigation Channel. One of my assignments was a penetrative look into Southeast Asian pirates. After years of decreased pirate activity in Southeast Asia, this type of high seas crime was experiencing a resurgence.

I found myself with a small crew driving along the northern coast of Aceh, in Indonesia. We’d come a long way after missing our connecting flight from Medan. We had been delayed at the airport and were held without explanation, until I gave the supervisor a bottle of rum I had picked up in Changi Airport. A gift from Singapore, I said. We were now driving to a district accompanied by local police, who asked us to keep the location secret. This part of Sumatra is most well known for it’s decades-long civil war, and for being one of the areas hardest-hit by the 2004 Tsunami. It should hardly come as a surprise then, that poverty and the crime it creates were rampant. Suffice it to say the area had seen better days.

Our shoot called for interviews with several intriguing characters on both sides of the law: undercover police officers as well as real pirates. But these were no eye-patch wearing parrot- lovers, with fashionable dreads. These were hard core criminals who had finally had run-ins with the law. Strangely however, not all were behind bars, and while the police arranged a few of these interviews, the pirates were at times unapologetic and downright frightening.

As director, one of the most important parts of my job during these shoots is to conduct interviews. There’s a lot of pressure to make sure you come away with the material you want to drive your story. When you consider all the hard work that has gone into organizing a television documentary shoot, from the first talks with the channel, to the development of the whole concept, meetings with funding agencies and potential distributors, hiring a team, along with countless hours making phone calls, it can be daunting. Everything is riding on your handful of interviews. Getting your questions right without turning the interviewee against you is no easy feat. When you finally meet face-to-face with a high seas pirate, with camera rolling, what would you ask?

Fortunately, my first interviewee clearly had a few things he wanted to get off his chest. Knowing this, I simply said through a translator: “Tell us your story.” And he did. My interviewee, who called himself “Abdullah”, told us he was the “mastermind” behind an organised group of criminals who used high seas robbery and kidnappings to make money. Normally, they approach vessels at night, boarding quietly to take the crew by surprise. Another tactic is simply sailing up to a ship and showing the captain their M16 or AK47, which ensures cooperation.

I have to ask: “Has anyone ever been killed, as far as you know?” His reaction was nearly a bad as I could have imagined. Abdullah looked away from our interpreter and straight into my eyes. He was clearly agitated. It was as if I had accused him of murder. “I don’t know of anyone ever being killed,” he said. “But make no mistake, the pirates in Aceh are different, and these people need the money. They can easily kill if they have to.”

Throughout this interview, I couldn’t quite believe what he was saying, given that he was not under arrest, and that our police accompaniment was there all along. But I could see in his eyes he was dead serious, and there was a coldness in his words that I wouldn’t have dared to doubt. I had clearly pushed him as far as either of us wanted to go, so we quickly wrapped up the interview, shook hands, and left.

Into the Water

Aside from the criminals, I needed visuals to support the backstory of these pirates, who come from coastal communities in Indonesia. The chance came randomly, and I made the quick decision to get ready and jump in the water. Two boys were out fishing on a shallow reef and I snorkeled out to meet them. These were scenes I shot myself with the Canon 5D Mark II in a Seacam housing. I waved and smiled, then pointed to my camera - a gesture I always make before filming local people in areas where I am uncertain of the cultural perceptions of cameras and photography. They smiled and seemed intrigued, and as is often the case with younger people, they even started hamming it up for the camera. They paddled this way and that on their tiny outrigger. They splashed me and jumped in the water, peering into my lens.

I let them have their fun knowing that I would need them to relax and act natural if I was to get any footage I could use. Finally, they went back to work, fishing in their peculiar style, and I started rolling. They first looked for tiny schooling fish from their boat before moving in closer and jumping on them using a net framed in a bamboo structure, like a big sieve. I filmed them paddling along at the surface, into the frame and out again, and from below the waves, their canoe passing over my head. I even placed my camera on their boat (though I wouldn’t fit) and swam alongside, trying a “tracking shot” without a track of course. At last, they met their father at sea, and gave the baitfish they had caught to him, while I floated next to them, filming joyously the whole while.

It may seem a far cry from the topic of high seas piracy, but for me, these scenes can add a whole new dimension to the story, bringing viewers an honest depiction of the kinds of places and lifestyles that at least some of these men are brought up in, but at the same time, showing the backgrounds of their potential victims. As the boys paddled off, I couldn’t help but wonder whether they would be the victims of pirates one day, or be tempted by a criminal mastermind with offers of big money. Either way, they and all of Southeast Asia, deserve better.

Act 3

A few days later, near Batam Island, Indonesia, our team had arranged a meeting with a different group of pirates on the water. We were told to meet them among sheltered mangroves, this time out of sight of the law. Were we going too far? Risking too much? I could only trust that my team had made the right decisions and talked to the right people.

After waiting for a short while in this hidden location, a boat appeared with four men all wearing black ski masks, or balaclavas. My heart started pounding. The heat seemed to intensify and sweat started pouring down my back. They pulled up alongside our boat and some Indonesian conversation took place between their leader, Faizal, and our local contact, who soon turned to me and asked: “What would you like to do?” Turn and run of course, I thought to myself. My head was spinning and it became difficult to focus, so to buy myself time, I asked them to show us their tools of the trade.

The four pirates then took out various hooks and ropes used to board vessels and tie up crew members. Then out came the weaponry: a rusty axe and a few rustier machetes, or parings. This did not help me focus. The four men then sat down and explained themselves.

I began to see a different picture of piracy emerge. They pointed to several oil refineries barely visible in the distance,and talked of inequality and corruption. Their fish have all been taken, awarded to foreign fleets with an endless industrial appetite. Corrupt officials pocket public money. With empty seas and little infrastructure or financial support for local people, it’s not hard to see why these men decided to turn to crime. It doesn’t make it right, but it certainly makes it easier to understand.

But I had to stay focused. There was still one burning question to ask. “When you take a ship, what do you do if the crew does not cooperate?” I asked. “In some cases we have faced resistance from some crews. The key is to make sure it comes to an end right away,” said Abdullah. “Sometimes we just make the guy bleed. No one does anything after that.” And that’s how quickly empathy can be washed away in a tide stained crimson.