As someone who goofed his way into journalism, I have a lot of sympathy for anyone willing to show the series of messes, lies and bluffs that make up getting into the career. Doubly so if they can tell a fascinating story, drizzling atop the enterprise a healthy amount of moxie. With all this sympathy, you’ll find I can forgive a whole lot—even a movie that practically opens up with a trite “yep, that’s me” narration.
The based-on-a-true-story Dabka knows its main character is a dick who thinks he’s better than everyone and everything. I’m inclined to agree with it. That said, Evan Peters’ portrayal of real-life journalist Jay Bahadur is so charismatic he almost runs away with the movie despite its clear intentions towards taking his snotty personality down a notch. And while the half-Indian journalist has been whitewashed by Peters (obviously consulted upon with Bahadur himself), the rest of the film casts (and even meta-critiques) with clear eyes Hollywood’s process of combining or completely erasing accurate portrayals of race and ethnicity from its films. But first: Dabka and Bahadur have to get out of Canada.
Bahadur is a loser. A market researcher obsessed with current events and his journalistic dreams, he’s submitted stories everywhere, only to be rejected. Then, by chance, he meets someone who’s made it. A mentor! Finally, every aspiring writer’s dream!
Surprise, it’s the wild-haired Seymour Tolbin (Al Pacino, who sounds like he ate a bullfrog that had been raised on the chunkiest gravel the pet store could afford) whose advice is as acrid as it is hilarious. “You wanna make it as a big swingin’ dick journalist, you gotta go somewhere crazy,” he says. And Bahadur decides, Hey, Somalia is pretty crazy. So crazy, in fact, that no Western journalists can convince their outlets to insure their travels there to cover its developing piracy situation. A Ukrainian vessel is taken, Tolbin’s advice is taken and then Bahadur is taken…to Somalia. It’s a ride so wild and rapid that it’s hard not to believe, a Hunter S. Thompson-wannabe bout of madness, but rather than a drug-addled freakout, it’s a whirlwind threatening to fling your heart out of your body when a series of exciting life events all tumble by one after another.
Director Bryan Buckley, known for his Super Bowl commercials and Oscar-nominated short film Asad, has plenty of stylistic swagger and a seemingly genuine touch with each of his actors. The leads are perfectly metered, side characters full of depth and one-off extras as deadpan as one could hope. Bahadur’s translator is a man named Abdi played by Barkhad…Abdi. He’s the guy you probably know as a Somali pirate from Captain Phillips, here working with a journalist and his government to pressure the pirates into behaving.
Our immersion into Somalia grows exponentially deeper as Bahadur gets off the plane and travels around the nation. That’s when we find out that “Dabka” means the fire into which he has plunged.
The politics of piracy are complex and well-explored here, always with a gun in the foreground to unsettle whatever rationality is happening behind it. For a movie primarily centered around conversations, meetings and interviews, each scene has a thumping momentum coxswained by the powerful chemistry between its leads. Peters is great out of necessity—anyone else would be swallowed up by Abdi’s sleepy-eyed shine. As the language barrier increases, so does the tension. Everyone’s sweaty, messy, grimy and raw, a realism nicely countered by drug- and desperation-fueled daydreams that crop up every now and again with some sharp animation. These are flashy, silent short films, elegantly telling Somali stories that’ve been filtered through a twenty-something’s intoxicant-addled mind into an Adult Swim show.
Throughout his adventures, Bahadur buys kilos of local drugs so the pirates will talk to him and flirts with a drug-dealing pirate’s wife named Maryan (Sabrina Hassan Abdulle, alluring and vicious) who loves GI Jane and Team America though she hates that Black Hawk Down didn’t cast any real Somalis. He discovers beauty in Somali culture, language and government—but nobody seems to care unless pirates are threatening Americans.
The film asks us what we value in our culture: Would we even be watching this movie—hell, would you even be reading this far into its review—if the movie was about Somalia’s fledgling democracy? Do our news stations care about that kind of thing? Our government? The film’s cocky self-assuredness is punctured, deflating in an ultimately satisfying way, like watching a teacher shut down an uppity student. Even Bahadur’s stupid voiceover writing becomes funnier over time as we realize the clichés and groaners only serve to show what an ultimately lame writer Bahadur was—that it was his bravery, stubbornness, hope, inquisitiveness and stupidity that made him great.
Director: Bryan Buckley
Writers: Bryan Buckley
Starring: Evan Peters, Barkhad Abdi, Al Pacino, Sabrina Hassan Abdulle
Release Date: Premiered at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter.