Pirates of the Horn of Africa: The Movie

The rescue of a US sea captain gave Samuel L Jackson an idea. Now Hollywood senses a blockbuster, says Daniel Howden
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The Independent Culture

The fact that the piracy crisis off the Horn of Africa has often resembled a script written in Hollywood hasn't escaped the notice of the movie industry itself.

A bidding war is underway in Los Angeles for film rights to the story of Richard Phillips, the US sea captain whose dramatic rescue from Somali pirates captivated people around the world last month. The auction comes less than a week after Samuel L Jackson bought the life rights of a Kenyan piracy expert, whom he intends to play in an upcoming movie.

The captain, who survived five days aboard a lifeboat with four gunmen before three of them were shot dead by navy snipers, is being represented by Creative Artists Agency, one of the biggest players in Hollywood who has had stars such as Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts on its books.

The CAA is helping the sailor from Vermont to navigate waters of an entirely different kind and the agency is already fielding lucrative film and book offers for him as Hollywood scrambles for the best way to cash in on global interest in the surge of piracy in the waters off Somalia.

Thymaya Payne, a US film-maker who is in the region working on a documentary on piracy, said Hollywood has started to get really interested in the topic since the first attempted hijacking of a US ship last month. "Since the Maersk Alabama the level of interest has rocketed," he said. "My BlackBerry hasn't stopped ringing."

Last week, Andrew Mwangura, a 47-year-old who runs a non-profit seafarers association, expressed his surprise that his life would be the basis for a potential blockbuster. The former merchant seaman has been running the East African Seafarers' Assistance Programme for more than a decade, and the piracy problem now dominates his life. Based in the humid Kenyan port city of Mombasa, where his desk used to be in a shack, he now works without an office, relying on more than half-a-dozen mobile phones to keep in touch with ship movements, sources, ship-owners and in some cases the pirates themselves.

"Why me?" was his response when Andras Hamori, a representative from Jackson's Uppity Films and an associated company H20 Motion, flew into Kenya to sign him up. He told him: "Why are you flying all the way from America just to see me and then for only one day, then fly back?"

"They say it's because you're a hero, that's what they say. And I told them I'm not a hero... because what I'm doing, I'm doing for the benefit of mankind."

Mr Mwangura shot to prominence after his role in the ransoming of a Ukrainian cargo vessel, the MV Faina, which was hijacked en route to deliver tanks and heavy weaponry to Mombasa. Mr Mwangura embarrassed Kenyan authorities by revealing that the real destination was Sudan, in violation of international agreements.

When the ship was eventually ransomed the consultant found an arrest warrant had been issued for him prior to the released ship's arrival in Mombasa. Mr Mwangura and his lawyer, Francis Kadima, have dismissed the drugs charge as a diversionary tactic to force him into hiding while the cargo ship was in port.

While Hollywood and others are seeking to portray him as a negotiator, Mr Mwangura insists he is not directly involved with ransom discussions.

The bald-headed Mr Mwangura has a slight resemblance to the Pulp Fiction star, if only because he has taken to wearing a cap and dark glasses – only in the Kenyan's case, these items are worn as a disguise.

"People call me and they ask for help," he told The Independent in a recent interview in Mombasa. He has taken to switching mobile phones, arriving early for appointments and believes he is being followed by authorities. "There are people who don't want Andrew Mwangura to be able to speak the truth," he said. He denies being a paid go-between and says he relies on donations. But such concerns may be lost in the rush to put modern pirates on the big screen.

"I'm concerned that Hollywood might turn it into a cartoon," said the young director, Payne. "Which would be a shame because if they did dig deeper the real story is beyond anything you could make up."

Hollywood's first mistake may have occurred already. Mr Mwangura admitted that given a choice he would rather be played by Kenya's favourite actor: Denzel Washington.