This interview by Tanya Leal Soto is being co-published by POV and StoryCode. Subscribe to the StoryCode Dispatch newsletter or find out more about StoryCode at storycode.org.
Last Hijack is a hybrid documentary / interactive film created by Tommy Pallotta and Femke Wolting of Submarine Channel, that tells the story of Mohamed, your average middle-aged man trying to make ends meet in his homeland: the failed state of Somalia. This gripping tale of piracy and wealth inequality exists in two forms: a linear feature film, and an online experience.
When did you know Mohamed was your main character?
Femke Wolting: We researched about a year and a half, first in Kenya and then in Somalia, to find our main character, it took a while before we found him.
Tommy Pallotta: We went to a lot of “fake pirates,” or what they call “media pirates,” people who give sound bites to the news crews. Finally, we found real pirates and Mohamed stood out because he was so expressive and open, which was very rare in the people that we encountered.
Femke Wolting: One of the main reasons why we chose him to be our main character was because he was very open about his life. Pirates know that if they talk about their past, they will be arrested and most of them have the desire to emigrate and go to other places like Kenya, because Somalia is such a hard place to live in. Mohammed does not wish to leave the country, he feels Somalia is his home, so he can be more open. Also, he was the most knowledgeable pirate amongst the ones we met. A lot of them were younger, he had more experience and was more in control than others; he would set up his own hijacks and had more understanding of what would happen.
How did your vision of these men change (if at all) after finishing the film? Were there ever conflicts between the general (Western) view of the Somali Pirates and the men you so intimately followed?
Femke Wolting: When we first started to research piracy and the world behind it — illegal fishing and the waste dumping that had happened in Somali waters — I think we were a little bit more romantic than when we really started filming. We soon realized that that world is a lot more complicated and we became more interested in contextualizing piracy in proximity to the families and the society, so the film, even though we didn’t really plan it up front, became much more about Mohammed’s family and understanding his struggles.
The film is a hybrid of documentary and animation. Did you start by assuming what the animation was going to do for the film? Did it grow organically with the story?
Tommy Pallotta: We always conceived it as a hybrid using animation and live action. At first our thoughts were that the animation would be used to show the things that we couldn’t film. We know that filming a hijack is illegal; that aside, even if we had done it, we knew it wouldn’t be very cinematic. Therefore, at the beginning, we were looking for a way to tell the story that would give us the perspective that we couldn’t naturally get. As we went along we started to discover that it could take on a different role. We started to explore how to really reflect and show a subjective point of view. Some of the animations are flashbacks and some are recreations of the hijacks, but the thing that we sort of stumbled upon was their use as a subjective point of view. In a way, the flashbacks and the recreations have that as part of their DNA, they are really Mohammed’s subjective point of view. We discovered that animation is really good for that.
Last Hijack has been described as a blend of documentary, animation and narrative. How would YOU describe it?
Tommy Pallotta: Yeah. I don’t know…
We should, I guess we call it a “hybrid”, which I don’t know if it is the best name for it. Certainly we are playing with the idea of genre and platform, and the fact that it is a transmedia project and an interactive documentary. All these things are very consciously done and they’re an evolution of the work we’ve done before; our constant push of boundaries and our desire to try to find new ways of storytelling; but I don’t know if we have a good name for it.
We have always played between the lines of documentary, fiction, animation, and interactive. We see great potential for storytelling. It’s fun to just take them all, put them in a blender and see the result.
How was the process of creating the interactive experience? Was it planned before, parallel or done once the film was finished?
Femke Wolting: We wanted to make an interactive companion piece with the film. The documentary was to dive into the Somali perspective, so in the interactive we wanted to compare and contrast the Western perception. Initially we were planning to produce them simultaneously, but once we started editing, it became very hectic since we were producing the animation, editing footage and shooting in Somalia. So we decided to first have a final cut of the film before continuing with the interactive.
By then, we had shot everything from the Somali perspective and we had the characters and footage needed for one standpoint. To continue working on the interactive side, we started to think on whom we could juxtapose. We found a Captain who had been kidnapped in Somalia, his wife, a few negotiators, a few experts and some other people that we thought might be an interesting addition to the film’s original story and that, through the interactive world, would show the complexity of the other side of the hijacks: the hostages, insurances, money flow, etc.
How did the notion of the viewers’ autonomy in the interactive experience affect the way you structure the narrative of both the film and the interactive experience?
Tommy Pallotta: There is a very traditional way of making a film and telling a story. Interactive storytelling feels like it’s in the experimental phase where people are discovering new ways to tell a story. The whole idea of a film is really that you are taken in a journey and that you are sort of submitting to a storyteller and his point of view. As soon as it’s interactive and the audience has some agency, it is necessary to enhance the story and characters. The user interface and user experience become a storytelling tool; you are participating with the audience and you have to utilize UX in the same way that film utilizes camera angles, lightning and editing so that it all becomes just another part of the toolset of the storyteller to engage the audience.
The grammar of immersive and interactive cinematic experiences is still very new, yet we can safely say you are amongst the most experienced creators, could you tell us a couple of specific examples of things you learned from previous projects that help you in this one?
Tommy Pallotta: COLLAPSUS was a landmark project for us. It was a very ambitious project; we were blending animation with live action and documentary with a gaming component. We really worked hard on the UI trying to make it user friendly while having a multiplatform experience on a single platform. I think we were very successful, and that made us realize that the User Interface has to be intuitive because it is a storytelling tool.
We also discovered the power of having different points of view, hence what we’ve done with interactive experience extensions, by giving the audience a choice of what perspective they want to see the story from. The concept we are exploring is still the same, and I think probably in terms of storytelling it will continue to evolve. I think, with virtual reality and other immersive experiences, the narrative will not necessarily ask the users to “choose their own adventure” but to inhabit a set in a realistic way, were they are asked to take the place of the camera and are able to walk around in a virtual environment.
This all comes back to adopting a certain point of view. When you are dealing with traditional filmmaking, the camera becomes that perspective. I think interactive, VR, immersive storytelling, will be centering in the notion of giving the audience different standpoints.
What advice would you give filmmakers who want to venture in these types of projects, as far as how to approach the design part with coders?
Femke Wolting: They are part of the team. When you make a film you have a crew. I think in interactive they have to be considered part of the crew. We see programmers as creative collaborators, the same way we see the film crew.
Now you have SubLA as a sister company of Amsterdam based Submarine and Submarine Channel. What differences do you see in the way transmedia projects are being approached in America?
Femke Wolting: It is quite different; in Europe transmedia is seen as an art, just like film is. The reason is probably because in the USA there is less public funding and projects are being supported by brands and marketing campaigns. Consequently there are fewer art projects and more of what it’s known as branded entertainment.
Finally, what type of opportunities or infrastructures do you think are needed to continue to create these projects?
Tommy Pallotta: There is definitely the need for a distribution platform but, at the same time, these kind of interactive experiences have a “niche” audience, thus there is also a need to market them so they can reach a bigger audience.
I think it just takes a dedicated group of people to make and tell these stories out of passion, then the audiences that are passionate about experiencing these types of stories, and then finding a way to work together and hope that it grows organically.
Tanya Leal Soto is Producer/Creative at Small Popcorn Fire Productions.