Although recent films like Captain Phillips and A Hijacking paid Somali pirates more than simple sympathetic lip service, they ultimately demarcated clear lines between right and wrong, making their primary focus the victims of the abductors. In Fishing Without Nets, however, director Cutter Hodierne blurs those lines, depicting the hijackers as captives themselves, bound to a fractured society in which options for survival are sparse. The film is seen through the eyes of Abdi (Abdikani Muktar), a peaceful fisherman struggling against an increase of empty nets, and with a wife and child to support, he grudgingly turns to piracy. Though this setup is perhaps infused with too much piety, cheating audience empathy toward the main character, it nonetheless generates a compelling air of social fatalism. The camera frequently tracks with Abdi from behind, suggesting the world he reluctantly inhabits snapping at his heels.
Eventually the pirates take control of a decrepit tanker and its crew, but Hodierne admirably resists the trappings of a conventional thriller in these scenes, while also ignoring specifics of the ensuing ransom negotiations, to concentrate instead on character behavior and world-building. As the hostages are split up and separately relocated onshore to thwart rescue attempts, a wobbly chain of command of emerges, underscoring a society of disorderly desperation, one in which rash judgments overrule logic, while shrewdly evoking the country’s historically volatile government. And Abdi essentially becomes prisoner to this chaotic hierarchy, eliciting suspicion of his cohorts when he demonstrates warmth toward Victor (Reda Kateb), the hostage in his charge. Still, despite their intrinsic goodwill, a distinct division remains, bitterly summed up by Victor, who matter-of-factly tells his captor, “You’re not a fisherman. You’re a pirate.” This becomes the film’s guiding principle, yet Hodierne seems overly intent to try and refute it.
The hopelessness cultivated in the preceding 90 minutes as a means to transform Abdi into a victim of circumstance is weirdly forgotten in a third act desperate to engineer an optimistic conclusion. In doing so, it leaves loose ends involving the hostages that are less a narrative deficiency than an inadvertent undermining of Abdi’s humanization, his own quandary taking center stage over concern for others, while weirdly validating the pirates’ avarice. The final shot could have been impressively ironic, Abdi adrift in the ocean with his plunder, but is instead rendered as a tone-deaf moment of triumph. Even though the film expends so much effort to differentiate him from everyone else, he ends up like all the rest—not a victim, not a fisherman, just a pirate.