Bryan Buckley‘s live short action film ASAD was nominated for an Oscar in 2013, and his most recent film, The Pirates of Somalia, is based on the story of Canadian journalist Jay Bahadur’s experience living with and reporting on the lives of Somali pirates. Buckley says that Bahadur initially wanted to go to Somalia to get noticed as a journalist in 2008, as there was very little reporting on the nation at the time. He explains that some Somalis turned to piracy to survive after international fishing fleets decimated the country’s coastline. Finally, Buckley and Scheer discuss how Bahadur’s courage and ambition could be a model for the future of journalism.
Bryan Buckley – filmmaker
RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, Bryan Buckley, an Academy Award-nominated director. He doesn’t look like that, looks like a young kid from Santa Monica, where he lives. But he has a great professional background. And this “pirate of Somalia”movie is, at first I thought, wait a minute, what is this about? It’s supposedly about a guy who claims to be a journalist, and he wants to know who are these pirates that are stopping international shipping, and you know, big freighters, and it was a major issue, continues to this day, although we haven’t had one this year, I don’t think, so far.
BB: We have.
RS: We have–
RS: –oh, OK, I stand corrected. But right through the nineties, and up into the present, people in Somalia who call–or some call pirates, they don’t like to be called pirates, and the movie explores who are these people. And it gets to explore it because there was this one guy who, you know, I guess was inspired by Redford and Dustin Hoffman and All the President’s Men, you have that poster throughout the movie. And he decides he’s going to be a journalist instead of a marketing expert who runs, goes to Thrifty’s and places like that and tells them where the toilet paper should be on the shelf. And he decides he’s going to be a journalist, and he wants to go to this place to find out who these pirates are. And you know, you think this is going to be kind of an interesting farce, and it is funny; it is easy to watch, and so on. And then you realize, it’s a deadly serious movie. Because it’s really, if I can be so presumptuous as tell the director here what the movie is about, it seems to me it’s about, basically, how screwed up and arrogant people who have power are in this world. And they think they can order the world with globalization and shipping and digitalized age and everything, and everything is going to go their way. And except there are other people out there in the world who say, wait a minute, you’re screwing up our water, you’re screwing up our livelihood. And that was the case of Somalia, a small country that has been screwed up so many different ways by foreign intervention. You go through this whole exploration where this guy risks his life to try to find out who these pirates are, what’s going on in Somalia, why are they stopping all these big ships and demanding ransom and everything. And then you realize there’s a very, very important point being made: that these ships that are passing in the night and everything, they in fact have messed up the lives of people who don’t have much to hold onto to begin with. And suddenly you have, you’re introduced to the fact that their fishing land, historical fishing land has been fished out, and they’re not going to be–by Koreans, by everyone in the world. And then you realize they’ve been visited with wars that they really had very little to do with authoring. Black Hawk Down is a movie that was made about supposedly one of those great adventures. And then you realize, these pirates can be perceived by their own people, just like Robin Hood, as somebody who’s changing the balance of power. They can mess with these big powers, they can extract a measure of social justice, they can call attention to these problems. And in desperation, they actually end up being open to this goofy journalist and tell him their story. Is that not the theme of the movie?
BB: Yeah, it’s true, absolutely true. And ultimately, that is what gets the attention of, you know, whether it’s the CIA or CSIS in this case, in the U.S. government. The frustration of how to stop these guys was what brought us to the table with Somalia to sort of patch up our relations with them. And it was certainly instrumental in this film.
RS: By “we” you mean the U.S. government?
BB: Meaning the military intervention. It’s explored very deeply in [Jay Bahadur’s] book [The Pirates of Somalia], of the amount of waste that the U.S. government put, you know, the Navy, trying to–
RS: For those not familiar, Jay is the–
BB: The author of the book, the actual–
RS: –yeah, tell the real story, and then you have the film, so, yeah–
BB: –OK, I can go into the details, sure, no problem. So Jay Bahadur was a kid living in his parents’ basement in Toronto. Basically he came out of college, the University of Toronto, and was going nowhere. He wanted to be a reporter of some sort, and he meanwhile was doing napkin research at supermarkets. It was interesting, because I did an interview with him–he enjoyed that job, because he loved just sort of seeing how people think and what they do. So he really enjoyed–like, the idea of–
RS: You–you said napkin–
RS: Yeah, yeah–
BB: Yeah, premium napkins.
RS: Literally, napkins.
BB: Napkins, yeah.
RS: Where they should be and why are they on the bottom shelf and not the top shelf–
BB: Bottom not top shelf, asking these questions, yeah. And this isn’t in his book, this is in interviews that I pulled out of him. And you started to see how his brain worked. You know, because his brain–you know, he was sort of satisfied with at least pulling information out of people, and very interested in that. And he ultimately, like with Somalia, his real fascination was that democracy was existing there, you know, in the north. And that he felt that it was really fascinating that they would have elections, and that there wasn’t–you know, even an election that was very, sort of a close-contested race, whoever won, won. There was no violence. The piracy thing came along, and he had spoken to, in the film, he talks to a character, an elderly character, Al Pacino, which is really the only fictitious element of the piece that I wrote. He ran into him, it was really a friend who sort of inspired him in true life. But he said, if you really want to become a famous reporter, you got to go somewhere where no one will go. Because he was trying to get published, and the stories he was writing were very surface stories. And Somalia was this place that he, you know, had this sort of interest in the democracy that was going on there. But the bigger part of it, that he knew he could probably get an angle and become a stringer there, was write about piracy. And that’s where the light bulb went off; like, no one was going in there; the BBC wasn’t going, CNN, the reporters were getting, there was hostage situations, you know, a lot of ugliness going on, and this was in the year 2008. So no one was going in there. So he took it upon himself to sort of write, you know, send out cold emails to different organizations over there. Ended up getting hold of the president of Somaliland’s, or Puntland’s president’s son, Farole. And he ended up saying, look, no one’s over, there are no reporters over here, and he, Farole, was under the impression that Jay wasn’t just some kid living in a basement, that he was actually, had some credentials. And he said, I want to come over and report, and he’s like, yeah, please come over. And they, the Somali government, or Puntland, offered to pay half his fees, and said we’ll put you with the pirates for, you know, as long–you know, as far as interviewing them; he ended up there for six months. In the movie I condensed it into one six-month period; he actually came back once and then went back over there for a second period in true life.
RS: But I do want to make this point, that this goofy kid who’s going there, first of all has courage, not to be believed, because it’s a scary place. And he has wisdom, that the journalists don’t have and that the governments don’t have. And I’m just going to give away what for me was the killer scene for the whole movie. And that is at the end, when he comes out the airport and he discovers that he, the journalist, is now a world-known figure because a lot of publications want to buy his story; he’s managed to get exclusive interviews with these pirates, he’s pulled it off. And you know, he has wisdom now, and so he’s met by the Canadian–
RS: –yeah, equivalent of their CIA, at the airport; he thinks they’re going to arrest him–no. They want to talk to him, because they said we–and they could be speaking for the CIA as well, because they cooperate very closely–he says, we don’t know these people at all; we don’t know who these pirates are, we have no information, and so forth. So they turn, so now this kid is now the source of wisdom, right? And they’re admitting that they, and with the U.S. government, that have intervened all over the world and overthrown governments, and which they certainly did in Somalia, and you know, Black Hawk Down, for instance, the fallacy in that movie is the people we were opposing were the people that the U.S. government had supported before, you know, so. It’s kind of played down. But what you really have is a sort of example: we don’t have adults watching the store. And this kid goes there and manages to find out something about these pirates that was missing in the American media totally; missing by the American government; that they were not alienated from their own population, they in fact were bringing about a measure of justice, in very much a Robin Hood–not necessarily that they distributed the spoils, although there was some of that. But the fact is, these people were besieged by globalization, by international trade. Let’s go back to that theme. The fishing grounds were being exhausted, they couldn’t make a living, they were basically fishermen, right? And these freighters and everything going by, these huge megaships that are disturbing everything, and polluting and so forth. And then we didn’t discuss the pollution issue at all; why don’t you examine that? There were two things happening; you know, at the same time they’re fishing the fish, they’re also–there’s a long coast with Somalia–at another part of the coast, they’re polluting the coast, and therefore endangering fish, right?
BB: Yeah. I mean, they had–I mean, listen, the Somali people, the coastline, after a tsunami there was all sorts of nuclear waste that washed up on their shores that had been dumped there. Basically, once they couldn’t police their own waters, and the country had really no way to defend itself, it became a dumping ground for just waste, from all the nations all around just dumping their waste into the waters, which–
RS: The same nations that were then also catching the fish.
RS: Right. So they’re polluting the water, in addition to killing and grabbing any fish that’s floating around, they’re also creating an environment in which fish can’t survive.
BB: Right. Yeah, creating an impossible environment. And fishing, of course, being along the coastline, was a huge part of their livelihood, especially in the north. And then you know, Somalia, it’s sort of broken up, but the north and the south, and al-Shabaab’s down in the south primarily, and the north, it is fishing, it was, that’s where democracy’s seeds were taking hold. So this was like one of these places where there was some hope that was getting kind of washed away, literally. Then, once the shipping industry sort of got involved in the piracy, and if you read in Jay’s book, it really goes into depth on it. But interestingly enough, the insurance policies started being purchased for these ships as they would move through the water, ‘cause they had to get insurance against piracy. Well, insurance companies were making bank off of these policies. So if it became a terrorist act, they’d try to distance it from that, because once that would come, intervention would happen, and there would be no insurance against that. So it was like a lot of big business at hand during that period. And then of course, ultimately the military intervention that happened there. So it was really a crazy situation, and then a second generation of pirates emerged; once the money started being made by these original fishermen, in came more piracy that was more mafia-based, less honest intentions. Garaad, who was involved in the taking of the Alabama, was more of the second generation of piracy. So Jay really went out of his way to point out that there’s different levels of piracy. There was the base fisherman, and there was some who sat there and said hey, look, there’s some money to be made here. And that’s, some of that money was even funded from other governments or other states. So it wasn’t just fishermen, you know. So later on, it began to manifest itself into this really sort of bad situation.
RS: The question the movie really raises, who are the adults? Who are the journalists? What is real news? And you’ve got this improbable, he’s not, you know, in All the President’s Men this poster is in the movie throughout, and you stuck it in there deliberately, and we have this glorified view of Woodward and Bernstein. But you know, the fact of the matter is, even they were not very successful when they started. They were cub reporters, and the rest of the paper was ignoring Watergate and so forth. So here you have the cub reporter shining, and he’s shining because despite himself, almost, he’s forced to take these people seriously. And what is a pirate? Is a pirate somebody on Wall Street who steals your savings? Or is a pirate someone in Somalia who says, hey, you’re screwing up our whole fishing grounds here and I can’t fish now, so I’m going to grab you, I’m going to fish for you, and I’m going to ransom you, and I’m going to get money. That’s really the big theme of the movie.
BB: Right. It absolutely is at the core of that. And the struggles of a government that only has them as, that’s what they have going for them right now, at that point. You know, that is the thing–they are, the kids look to these pirates as rock stars, ‘cause they’re the ones that are actually making a difference out there, making money and are successful. There’s no work there, there’s nothing for people to do, you know; they’re just lost. I think it’s important too to know, and I’ll say this, I have worked on Assad. And one of the big themes in Assad was essentially I used all refugees for that film, and these two kids that were–you know, I originally had done a short doc for UNHDR, that was the first thing I did, and it was about refugees and showing the value of refugees. And the UN asked me, or UNHDR asked me to figure out a way to bring value to them; it didn’t work. No one saw the doc. Second–
RS: Well, it worked intellectually, but it didn’t get a audience.
BB: No, it didn’t get an audience. And to me, it’s about finding an audience, right. So the second part was, we did Assad, and in the case of Assad I made, I told the same story but I called them actors. These kids, I did a narrative. And suddenly, the world took notice. You know, got the Academy nomination, Archbishop Desmond Tutu did a speech on the film, ‘cause we shot [in] South Africa. It got world attention. But the first screening of that movie, the very first screening, we screened it in the Santa Barbara Film Festival. And there were about eight people in the audience the first night, and eight people in the audience the second night that we watched it. This is a true story. And so you’re depressed; you’ve made this narrative, the first one where no one noticed, second one, now I’ve done Assad and I’ve got eight people in the audience. And you’re like, this is it? We do this incredible film and no one shows–
RS: How old are you, by the way?
BB: I’m fifty-four.
RS: You look like you’re nineteen.
BB: It’s Santa Barbara, the Santa Monica water. [Laughter] And so we’re there, so we’re there, and out in the [audience]–so, Q&A happens, I go outside into the lobby, and there’s one guy who says, I’ve been to two of your screenings of your films, I’ve gone to both of them. And he was from the State Department.
BB: Yeah. And so he says, I need to ask you a bunch of questions about Somalia. And he’s looking at me, as you just said that to me, like you’re some, you know, guy from Santa Monica–like, you’re asking me? And it was literally that same thing that happened–
RS: Yeah, you do look–actually, this is the beach bum look, right?
BB: The beach bum look, yeah! [Laughs]
RS: Blonde hair down to your shoulders, a baseball hat reversed, yeah, yeah.
BB: And so, but he started asking me all these questions about piracy and about this, and you know, about–and then I just had done this short. And it was interesting, ‘cause Jay had obviously the exact same story happen to him on a much larger level. You know, there’s an end meeting there in the film, where he’s meeting with the CIA; that meeting took place just prior to me interviewing him up in Toronto. I used that plane ticket, that the State Department paid for him to come over from Nairobi, to come there to do that interview–I took the, he came up to Toronto, then I did that in-depth interview which was part of the movie. And you realize, like, ultimately what films we’re creating are their reality. The information at that time, especially in Somalia, there was so little information out there that it’s being handed to you by me, or in this case Jay, who’s obviously he’s on the ground in Somalia, he’s far more knowledgeable. But it’s a kind of crazy concept, if you think about that.
RS: [omission] The appeal of this reporter, and it’s a very interesting theme in your movie, he says “I can get you publicity.” You know, “I can, I’ve got this video camera here, and I can get this recorded out there, and your story told, so don’t kill me.” Right? That’s basically his argument.
BB: Right, yeah, yeah.
RS: I’ve been in that position a little bit; I think any journalist who veers off the narrow path where you’re embedded and protected by–you know, if you go out there in the field a little bit, that is one of your arguments: hey, I just want to tell your story, you know. And if you can convince people and be honest with them, you get that story. I mean, I know in my own case when I went to Southeast Asia, or I was in Egypt at the end of the Six-Day War, I didn’t have big resources, but the one argument I could make is look, you know, I really want to hear what you have to say. And in your movie, these, this very group of thugs and fishermen and everything else, and the son of the president–they all, they come to believe him. And he lives, right?
BB: Yeah, he lives, and is still very active over there. Some of the, actually, some of the footage I sent, he was in Somalia, he shot some of my B-roll footage.
RS: Tell us about him, because we have–
BB: Jay, yeah, Jay–I mean, I–there’s some stuff–
RS: –give us his full name, and all that.
BB: Yeah, Jay Bahadur. He, ah, he wrote for the Somalia Report after he finished the book that became a best-seller, based on, really, it got bought on that moment when he had that interview with Garaad. And that’s the point where his book got picked up and became a New York Times bestseller. And then he fell in love with the country and went back to Kenya, started the Somalia Report, was on there for, you know, just until recently. And then he shifted; I can’t tell you where he went, unfortunately, but let’s just say he’s in and out of Somalia now on a very positive mission. His whole life has been changed. I mean, the interesting thing about Jay is Jay is only 32 years old right now. So he’s already got a book made, I mean a movie made on his life, and he makes a small cameo in our film. But he came down to set in South Africa while he was still working, and it was surreal, ‘cause there’s a guy whose life is far from fulfilled, you know, and he’s not famous really in terms of the world, and he didn’t die a rock star’s death at 32; he’s still in there, in the field, working every day.
RS: Does he like the movie you made?
BB: Oh, he loves the movie. Yeah, I brought him over–
RS: ‘Cause he looks goofy in the movie.
BB: He is pretty–but he related to the, he really related to the character. He said, um, you know, he was so nervous when we did the screening. You know, I flew him into New York and he had a few drinks before he came to the screening, said “I had to”–like, the middle of the day, he said “I had a couple drinks, I just can’t believe I’m seeing my life unfold before me.” And you know, he said “very accurate.” Jay, it was interesting, when he watches one scene in the movie, where he jumps out of the truck and tries to intervene and gets involved in the conflict with the pirates, was all true, when he’s trying to get on the ship to shoot for CBS, and he goes, “You know, it really hit me now how dangerous that moment is now, watching my life play out before me, versus when I was in the moment.” You know, and he’s had, he said that’s one of the regrets he had, was jumping out of the truck at that point. He said, “I don’t, I can’t believe I did that.”
RS: I think this is the model for having a meaningful life in this current, crazy, new Internet world. This guy could show up, he had a video camera, he could get the word out, he knew how to communicate, get his message out, sell his story, package it; he could do all that, you know, he was a sharp young guy. And he could do something that none of the networks were able to do. You have this scene at the end where he finally opens his email, and I forget the numbers, but something like 270 news organizations want to get his interview, you know. And I think that’s the positive message of this film. It is actually a testament that journalism exists, that real news coverage and not fake news can be done. Because this guy gets at real news. This is an advertisement for the amateur getting real news, as long as the amateur is well intentioned, as long as the amateur is willing to learn, keep your listening ears open. And that’s on display here. We are introduced, he goes from being a goofball to being a serious journalist in the course of your movie, you know. And then I must say, the Al Pacino character, or invention in the movie, but played by–that guy exists also. All of us in journalism have had that kind of grizzled role model, female or male; grizzled, you know, person who said look, you have the heart–he sees in this guy, you have the heart of a journalist. You have the intensity, you have the skill set, you know, he tells him; but you don’t have the story that’s going to move you. Go find the story that’s going to move you. And that’s really what this movie is all about. Hopefully you will be a household name, Bryan Buckley. And so, I’ve done Oliver Stone on this show, maybe you’re the next Oliver Stone. And just tell us how you got into the movie business. And you were doing mostly commercials, right?
BB: Commercials, yeah. Commercial work. And you know, most of my commercial work is, obviously it’s narrative, I do a lot of comedy work, tons of Super Bowl work, I’ve done, now I’m 55 Super Bowl commercials. [Laughs] So I’ve done a lot of Super Bowl work.
RS: So that’s how you were able to buy the rights to his book?
BB: That’s, everything, yeah, and finance that movie, you know. So, yeah.
RS: Oh, is that right? Oh, so this is a great story on the best side of American capitalism, actually. Because of your success in the commercial industry, right?
RS: That’s interesting. You saw the book, and you were the first person to try to buy the film rights.
RS: Well, tell us that story.
BB: Yeah, I mean, I was down shooting that film Assad in South Africa. The only reference manual I could find was Jay’s book.
RS: But you were there shooting because the life of making money commercially was not fully satisfying.
BB: Yeah. I needed–yes. It’s never, it is, you need to further that, you know, you need to take that–
RS: Well, fortunately you do; a lot of people don’t, they just buy another house or something.
BB: Nah, this is like, yeah, this needed to happen, you know, and–
RS: Well, tell us why it needed to happen. I’m sorry, maybe I should have begun with this. But you are part of this story here. You’re making a bundle. You’re making a lot of money, right? And you can buy any car you want, and any house you want, right? You can do that, because you’re very good, what, technically, at making these commercials for the Super Bowl and everything?
BB: Yeah, just a gift, I guess, whatever, yeah.
RS: OK. And you decide to now do something very different.
BB: Yeah. I come from a pretty liberal background. My family’s super liberal, peace marches and all that, I grew up around that. So you know, kind of cause-related family. So that was always at the root of who I am.
RS: So they think you’re selling out and–when are you going to do something that’s going to make me proud–
BB: No, they never did–no, you know, interestingly, my family, too, like, was in marketing. So you know, like, there’s two sides of it. There’s like this, the two sides, but how do you balance that. And for me, the idea that you can make as much money as you want, have as many houses as you want, it’s really an empty thing. To me, personally, it’s empty, right. I mean, the idea that you can turn around and film and help people is just very clear to me. And the casting, I cast somebody in a Super Bowl commercial, they go from an unknown person working at Starbucks to suddenly in everybody’s household all over the world. You see the power of what we do. Getting involved with UNHDR, you know, with the refugee camp, and going there and then realizing the politics within UNHDR or the UN, you realize they’re a global organization, they’re a big [player]. You can’t, as a filmmaker, you can’t necessarily step–you’re pissing off this person, you can’t do this, can’t do that. So I realized you had to take it outside of that organization to create something that was meaningful, ‘cause there’s just not enough flexibility within their organization. Even though I knew what they wanted, their intent is correct, bureaucracy is there; it’s undeniable. So, come over here and you can move outside that and start financing and building something that is turned into this movie. You know, ultimately. That got a message out there and had some impact.
RS: What we really have here is you think you’re going to watch this movie and there’s going to be some hot tub in Africa movie or something, some goofy thing, and it turns out to be, I want to say deadly serious; I mean, death can be involved, and really scary stuff, you know, and he’s risking his life. But the fact is, it is very serious. It’s a serious, it’s an enjoyable movie–I don’t want to get people not to watch it, I think it’s really a lark in a way–but at the end, you have one of the most serious examinations, let me just say as a veteran journalist, you have one of the most serious examinations of where journalism is now, for better or worse. And the worse is not your hero; that’s the better. Your hero is the better. Just like you are, by the way; the idea that you would take your money that you made commercially from your sellout life–professionally, not sellout, competent wonderful; we need Super Bowl commercials, I like ‘em myself–but the fact of the matter is, you didn’t just take this money and just lead a decadent life. You take this money and you bought the rights–that’s what got me. You jumped in and bought the rights to this book, right? How come there wasn’t, why didn’t everybody else want to make–?
BB: That was the craziest thing. No, there wasn’t–I don’t know how I got–
RS: Well, let’s end with that story. Because it’s really interesting to me how we get good people, OK? And so now I’m defining you as a good person, ‘cause I thought the movie was so valuable. So tell me how this happened. You read about it, you–
BB: Yeah, we were in South Africa. You know, I’m shooting that other film Assad; there’s no reference, there’s nothing to read that I can find. And the year is 2011, it was ‘11. And so Jay’s book, as I’m handing it out to my crew, I said use this book–
RS: Give us his full name so people can–
BB: Jay Bahadur’s book, Pirates of Somalia, is the only book–
RS: Yeah, so you can get that also in bookstores or on Amazon, yeah.
BB: Yeah. And so we reached out, he was on the Daily Show, that, just right around the same time, and he’s doing this interview there, talking about his book. I was like, we got to get the rights to this, I can’t believe we’re shooting and no one’s–someone’s obviously bought the rights to this story. And the answer was, no one had. It just–nobody had. Which sort of, I thought was interesting, too. So–’cause usually Hollywood’s buying books, you know, especially a bestseller, well ahead of time. So we just went in, and then they said, you know, his publisher and his lawyer said, like, what’s your position on the story? I go, the story–I love the piracy thing, I think it’s amazing. Jay’s story as a journalist, I actually said that, his, is what I want to expand upon. Like, more than what the book’s done. Because I thought it was inspiring. You know, it was what you were just saying; it’s essential in this age, to inspire others to go and do what he’s doing.
RS: Great, that’s a great point on which to end. We have All the President’s Men, and we have a great lesson in journalism. Watch the movie. Read Jay’s original book. The movie’s out. And as I say, it’s a new development in the film industry where you can actually watch it on Netflix and everywhere else at the same time. But I would recommend, don’t do that, because I watched it on my iPhone, but no, go to the theater, support the film, and see it the way the director intended to have it be seen, in the theater. So that’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence. Our producers are Josh Scheer and Rebecca Mooney. Kat Yore and Mario Diaz are the engineers here at KCRW. And I want to thank you for coming in and everyone for listening.