Survival is one of humanity’s most basic instincts, driving one to unspeakable lengths to persevere in the harshest of conditions. Fishing Without Nets, one of this year’s Sundance Film Festival competition dramas, applies this idea to an entire way of life. Expanding his short of the same name that took home a jury prize at the festival two years ago, director Cutter Hodierne explores Somali piracy and the cyclical economic system in place to mixed results with this feature-length version.

Our protagonist is the good-willed Abdi (Abdikani Muktar), a father and husband who must smuggle his family out of the country for temporary better conditions, while he makes money; after all, he says, “a man is not a man unless he can feed his children.” With his options as a fisherman dried up to due to the pollution of his nearby waters, he’s initially hesitant but soon gets recruited to join the local pirate gang, due to his knowledge of the sea’s shipping lanes.

In an intense sequence, the gang takes claim to an international vessel, whose crew is made of a variety of races, but the only way for the Somalians to make any money is through the white hostages. That means they are splitting the top goods, with captain (Eric Godon) getting to stay on the ship. As the tension wanes from the initial hijacking, the second act transitions to a more subdued setting, with crew member Victor (Reda Kateb) being transported off-site, back to their home. This is where the film hits a lag, as we’re repeatedly told about the motives of the pirates and the point is hammered home that they need to keep these hostages alive in order to get their ransom (initially $10 million, but now down to $1 million).

Thankfully Hodierne provides remarkable authenticity to the drama, using non-actors and shooting locally off the Kenyan coast for 77 days. The budget isn’t disclosed, but I’d be surprised if there’s another film at the festival that makes better use of its location, both economically and from a cinematography standpoint. From its opening shot, as we glide along their avenue for piracy (treacherous water) leading up to their symbol for freedom (shipping boat), all the way to its climax, leaving more questions than answers, it’s a beautifully captured film.

Comparisons to last year’s Captain Phillips and A Hijacking will certainly crop up, and if one was disappointed with a look at the opposition in those features, Fishing Without Nets provides a far more thorough examination at the motives of those involved, particularly the group’s internal conflicts. Despite a repetitive second act, Hodierne has crafted a confident directorial debut that gives a voice to those oppressed by this destructive way of life.

Fishing Without Nets premiered at Sundance Film Festival 2014. One can see our full coverage of the festival below.

Grade: B-

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