When Paul Greengrass took on Captain Phillips—starring Tom Hanks as the true-life captain who combatted Somali pirates at the height of their influence—the result was six Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture. At the same time, writer/director Bryan Buckley knew that there was an entirely different angle on this story, hinging on a character who could propel a film through sheer force of will.
That individual would be Jay Bahadur (Evan Peters), a frustrated young man aspiring to be a famous journalist who is at the center of Buckley’s Tribeca-premiering drama, Dabka—and who eventually wrote the book “The Pirates of Somalia,” on which the film is based.
“Jay is the everyday guy, and I think that he represents a large portion of us that come out of school, out of college, thinking they want to do one thing, realizing they’re not so sure, and then they’re living back home with their parents,” Buckley said, appearing at Deadline’s Tribeca Studio to discuss the film. “He was in his parents’ basement, up in Toronto in 2008, and he was doing napkin [market] research for supermarkets. He desperately wanted to become a famous reporter, but he had never gone to journalism school, and he was just writing crap stories, trying to get published.”
In his journey—as portrayed in the film—Bahadur comes across a journalistic mentor (Al Pacino), who tells him that if he wants to become a famous reporter, the way to do it is to go somewhere in the world where other journalists refuse to go, due to the potential life-or-death stakes of the environment.
Of course, Jay takes this advice to heart: Cut to the fledgling writer in Somalia, putting himself in way over his depth, in the pursuit of journalistic excellence, and some notion of making a name for himself. “Of course, Jay was BS-ing his way, all the way over there, got there, and was living with the pirates for six months, amongst them, reporting, desperately trying to get actually published,” the director explained. “He ended up interviewing the pirate who took the ship from Captain Phillips, the Alabama, just before he took the ship.”
Shooting primarily in South Africa, Buckley took on the task of incorporating a broad range of Somali non-actors into the film to give it the authenticity it needed, getting approval of the script from the chief of a particular community, and then moving on to the next one.
Bringing real Somalis into the film proved a challenge—after all, Somalis are refugees arriving in South Africa, who are not viewed as welcome by all. “There’s been a lot of tension, a lot of xenophobia. When you start saying, ‘I’m going to bus in hundreds of Somalis into a very poor township,’ you have to actually play like an ambassador, too, because it’s crazy,” Buckley shared. “We sort of employed both sides as best we could—sort of [a] U.N. of filmmaking, we’ll say—and it worked out really beautifully. It was a really amazing process.”
Ultimately, the film’s portrait of Jay Bahadur is as mesmerizing and impressive as anything, and thinking of his film’s potential audience, Buckley hopes for an audience of young individuals who will connect with the can-do attitude of a young man who made the impossible possible. “[The] U.N.’s an amazing organization, but it’s an organization, and you’ve got to deal with a lot of bureaucracy, unfortunately. It’s just the way it is,” he said. “That Jay didn’t sit back and wait to go, ‘I’m going to go slog rice bags at a camp for a while and try to work my way up…’ He just went.”
To view Deadline’s conversation with director Bryan Buckley, click above.