Tribeca Capsule Review: The Project


At the end of The Project we’re shown events that happened in March 2013 involving the Puntland Maritime Police Force (PMPF). There’s  a harrowing stand-off with Somali pirates just off the coast. Since the events and developments were relatively fresh, it made the documentary feel like the glue on it was still wet. What I was watching was a kind of work-in-progress, or at least it seemed like it. Even the title card that preceded the new footage wasn’t uniform with the others.

The PMPF is an anti-piracy paramilitary police force in Somalia. Formed in 2011, it was funded by money from the United Arab Emirates and managed by a number of military contractors (including advising or supervision from Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater), a former CIA agent, and South African mercenaries. The solution isn’t perfect, but it seems like the only feasible option to consider to defeat pirates and secure waterways, especially since Somalian government doesn’t have the resources to create its own anti-piracy force.

The Project chronicles the controversial creation and development of the PMPF, and the inevitable problems a group like this faces.

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The Project
Directors: Shawn Efran and Adam Ciralsky
Rating: TBD
Release Date: TBD

When Prince is on screen, he keeps talking about the situation in Somalia in terms of action movies, even comparing the country to Mad Max. Coming from the creator of the world’s largest private military company, it’s an unintentional but revealing description. In an action movie, the plot of a PMPF movie would go like this: a ragtag group of a few hundred Somali volunteers would transform from underfed and untrained civilians into the best and brightest fighting force in East Africa.

Movies aren’t real life, though. In The Project, the PMPF plot is more like this: a ragtag group of a few hundred Somali volunteers is so malnourished that their legs break while running; they’ve never worn footwear with laces and require boot training before firing rusted guns (the PMPF was disallowed new weaponry because of an arms embargo); and they may be secret spies for the pirates. When the PMPF embarks on their first missions, there’s a genuine fear of the group’s catastrophic failure.

The main guide for The Project is Roger Carstens, a former Special Forces lieutenant colonel embedded with the PMPF to film and observe how they conduct operations. Former UN coordinator Matthew Bryden is included in the film as a counterpoint, citing lack of oversight. While the whole story of the PMPF is incomplete (e.g., no exploration of reported beatings and killings of trainees) and unfolding (e.g., needs more about the multiple factors causing a dip in Somali piracy as well as the origins and rise of al-Shabaab), I still think that directors Shawn Efran and Adam Ciralsky have created a worthwhile conversation starter, and I hope they continue to follow the story.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.