When you think about Somalia, you’re probably thinking about one thing: pirates. It’s the country’s most famous cottage industry. People who can’t point to Somalia on a map know that the word that comes after Somali is pirate. If that’s the extent of your knowledge, you’re not alone. Much of the world knows precious little about Somalia; much of it had never been visited by a journalist, given the region’s reputation for violence against the foreign media, until the 25-year-old Jay Bahadur travelled there in 2009 in search of a story, a story that became his first book The Pirates of Somalia: Inside Their Hidden World, which in turn, became the basis of Dabka.
The film starts back in 2008, where Jay Bahadur, played by Evan Peters (X-Men: Apocalypse) is doing market research for napkins while his dreams of becoming a journalist are being treaded on by rejection letter after rejection letter. After a chance meeting with a veteran reporter played by Al Pacino, who tells him to forgo journalism school and instead go some place insane, Jay decides that he wants to go to Somalia. After making a few phone calls, Jay finds himself on a two day plane ride to Somalia as the guest of the president’s son. Escorted by his translator Abdi, played by the Captain Phillips breakout Barkhad Abdi, Bahadur becomes the first westerner to see what life is truly like in Somalia, simply because he was the only one willing to go.
Dabka, which gets its name from the Somali word for ‘fire’, succeeds at a lot of what it sets out to do, which is, first and foremost, to tell the story of Somalia in a way that puts the country and its people front and center. The film is shot primarily with actual Somali refugees, a response to a complaint leveled by a bride of one of the pirates who says that none of the Somali in Black Hawk Down were actual Somali people. The film paints Somalia not as a war zone, but as a vibrant country with a rich culture, a young democracy finding its footing. Even the pirates are not presented as some monolithic menace, but rather an aspect of the culture with some seeking to protect Somali fishing grounds and others declaring war on any ship in Somali waters.
But while it might provide a balanced and respectful look at Somalia, Dabka never really comes together as a compelling narrative. Writer / director Bryan Buckley (The Bronze) never settles on what tone the film should have, deciding instead to try a bit of everything. The result is a film that is at times broadly comedic but also takes itself quite seriously. There’s an attempt here for Buckley to have his cake and eat it too. Dabka employs voice over narration delivered by Peters, who openly mocks films that utilize voice over narration. Self-reflexivity isn’t the kind of thing you can slip in and out of at will while retaining a cohesive feel.
Evan Peters does an admirable job as Jay Bahadur, although the script doesn’t allow him the kind of emotional transformation he’s capable of. For a man experiencing transformative events, we don’t see Jay change very much. Buckley toys with the notion that Jay becomes addicted to khat, a local drug used to ply pirates to speak. Because the film makes dramatic jumps in time its difficult to chart where he is on his emotional journey, or if he’s even going on one at all. He does grow a very unappealing beard though. Peters is at his best with Abdi, playing a very different kind of Somali this time around. He’s no less memorable here and the friendship between the two men is, in many ways, the heart of the film. Al Pacino is little more than a distraction, but it’s nice to see him play a character that doesn’t eat the scenery.
The climax of Dabka shows the events of the Captain Phillips hostage situation from the Somali perspective. Following the killing of the pirates, Jay finds himself the target of pirates looking to kill a westerner in retaliation, prompting a hasty exit from the country. It’s an exciting sequence that only lasts a few minutes, which illuminates a larger problem with the film. Because the film is constantly moving from plot point to plot point, Buckley has difficulty maintaining any real sense of tension, resulting in a film that feels both too long and not nearly long enough. Perhaps this too is the result of trying to be too many things at once. You can’t make something that’s half iced tea and half hot coffee – the result is just tepid sludge.
Verdict: 2 out of 5
Dabka benefits from some really compelling subject matter and strong performances from Peters and Abdi. Somalia is a country not enough people know enough about and Buckley’s film is an earnest attempt to give the young democracy some fair exposure. It’s very easy for Africa to seem otherworldly, and so any attempt to humanize these peoples and provide context to their cultures should be seen as a good thing. There are just too many aspects of Dabka that don’t come together to make it an outright success.