When you’re trying to break into a seemingly cloistered world, what else can you do but lie your way in and hope for the best?
Journalism can be a harrowing experience. Risking life and limb, journalists flock to areas that are long abandoned due to danger. Whether it’s genocidal atrocities or human rights violations, journalists often witness these cruel acts first-hand. Coupled with a strong ,moral and ethical drive, journalists often put themselves in harm’s way to ensure the spread of information. They are perhaps some of the most courageous individuals behind-enemy-lines. It’s the kind of journalism that Somalis would refer to as “Dabka” which means, “into the fire I’ve plunged.”
Then again, there’s another kind of journalism that exists as well. It’s the kind of reporting that Jay Bahadur (Evan Peters) finds illusorily important–namely, investigating the shelf placement of premium dinner napkins. It’s a story that Bahadur hopes and fully believes will “affect every household.” From his ill-conceived dreams of attending Harvard Journalism School to becoming the next Edward R. Murrow, Bahadur has a sweet level of naivete that speaks true to millennialist ideals. It’s this kind of delusional grandeur that sends the young, hapless Canadian into the only country that no other war correspondent dares venture into–Somalia.
After a slew of stony nights and a series of circumstantial run-ins with luck (including running into illustrious journalist Seymour Tolbin, played by the typically gravelly-voiced Al Pacino), Bahadur makes contact and is soon on his way to Somalia. After a seemingly neverending series of connecting flights, the young Canuck lands in the pirate-filled coast of Somalia. Through a series of backdoor deals, khat bribes and close calls, Bahadur slowly begins embedding himself with the locals and their Robin Hood pirate figures leading him to be one of the first individuals to have a close-up look at the new pirate-heavy Somalia.
With the Academy Award-nominated “Captain Phillips” (starring America’s dad Tom Hanks) still fresh on people’s minds, Bryan Buckley’s “Dabka” returns to Somalia’s number one narrative export. But while “Captain Phillips” had a sombering tone that was as tense as it was harrowing, “Dabka” portrays itself as a lighthearted examination of the ongoing conflict through the eyes of a naive journalist.
“Dabka” occupies a strange point in its aesthetic and narrative aura. It is a war correspondent film that is more akin to Tina Fey’s “Whisky Tango Foxtrot” (2016) than Michelangelo Antonioni’s “The Passengers” (1975). But that is exactly what the story of “Dabka”–as told through the eyes of the nonfictional Jay Bahadur–is about. It’s a reimagination of the motives, actions and emotions of Somali pirates. They were not warmongering, bloodthirsty jihadists as US intelligence suggested up to that point. Instead, many locals saw them as Robin Hoods who helped re-establish Somalia’s autonomous free market status. In their belief, they were driving away fishing vessels that threatened to decimate local fish populations.
And just as Bahadur reformulated the portrayal of Somali pirates in his book The Pirates of Somalia: Inside Their Hidden World, so too does Buckley in regard to false representation of East African nations and its people in “Dabka.” Using Somali and other East African actors, Buckley aims to not only tell the story of Bahadur’s perilous story but also recast Western perceptions of Somalia. And somehow, Buckley manages to do so without overtly hackneyed narrative conventions.
Relying on a heavy dose of postmodern self-reflectivity, “Dabka” manages to not wade into waters of condescension. From the film’s frequent reference to the culturally insensitive representation of Somali people in “Black Hawk Down” to its self-referential cartoon abstractions about “Captain Phillips,” Buckley’s film works tirelessly to shun these films’ cultural representations. Furthermore, the Somali actors frequent assumption that Bahadur is American (when he is staunchly Canadian) is a reversal of the perceptions that the West imposes onto Africans. It is a self-referential moment in which Buckley attempts to usurp cultural differences and suggest that everyone has them and reflects them.
“Dabka” plays as an almost revisionist film that tries to realign western perceptions. It is here–and only here–that “Dabka” strives to take itself seriously. And while it is a commendable effort, it is difficult not to feel as though it is a cheap attempt at discussing a rather serious issue regarding Hollywood’s relationship with representation. The lighthearted aura, humorous anecdotes and naivete of Bahadur all point to the rather inappropriate portrayal of a difficult dialogue that needs to occur. It is a film that seems to be an amalgamation of Buckley’s prolific career producing Super Bowl TV spots and his more serious documentarian traditions found in his similarly themed Academy Award-nominated short film “Asad” (2012).
In the end, Bryan Buckley’s newest feature film is an admirable attempt to portray a new perception for Western audiences of African culture and its people. But due to its rather bizarre lightheartedness, it misses its notes as a serious contender in reimaging representation within conventional Hollywood cinema.
“Dabka” had its worldwide premiere April 27 as part of the Tribeca Film Festival.