Tribeca Film Festival review: Dabka

A stranger in a strange land and an unconventional buddy cop movie — these are two fictional devices that Bryan Buckley’s film, Dabka, thrive on.

Under both genres, it could be argued the film — one of 15 films to compete in the Spotlight Narrative category at the Tribeca Film Festival — is the most digestible, easy-to-watch entry into the still young 2017 movie calendar.

The problem? The real-life drama doesn’t take its stakes seriously enough to warrant the classic label.

Dabka is a biographical exploration about Canadian journalist Jay Bahadur so Buckley feels compelled to give us a proper build up before we arrive on the ground in that aforementioned strange place (spoiler: it’s Somalia). It’s a decision that yields a frenetic-paced second half — one that combs over what made Bahadur a world-renowned reporter (double spoiler: it’s piracy).

As cute as Buckley’s first-half introduction to Bahadur’s pre-Somalia life might be, it takes up too much of the film’s 117-minute duration.

A better first scene would have been the bearded reporter (played by the charming Evan Peters) waking up on the Somali coastline to find the ship he’s looking to get on — the MV Faina — has disappeared.

Instead we get Bahadur smoking a joint cruising from grocery store to grocery store in the Toronto suburbs.

It’s a highly inspirational story — especially for raw journalists saddled with student debt, looking for purpose, and living in their parents’ basement. Doubly, Peters seizes the role, and perfectly captures that late 2000s desperation.

After a chance encounter with his idol, Seymour Tolbin (Al Pacino), Bahadur decides to quit applying at different news companies and work for himself.

But glory and fame aren’t as simple as buying a ticket half-way around the world.

Bahadur has to get his feet dirty on the ground, and develop roots in the soil of this impoverished nation.  

And this is where Buckley really begins to have fun with the plot: Bahadur is the only in-country journalist, a true one-man band — without any government support or protection.

The later comes when our Blue Jays jersey-wearing protagonist meets Abdi (another incredible turn from Mogadishu native and Academy Award-nominee Barkhad Abdi), who completes the buddy-cop structure needed to make this investigation a success.

It’s a believable friendship from this first joke.

The translator believes he can not only help his new Canadian pal uncover the pirates’ motivations to hijack vessels off the country’s coastline, but also get him on board to shoot video.

And that’s where Bahadur can bring home the bacon — or at least recover his losses — and make a name for himself.

Naturally, as always is the case when two people of very different and conflicting personalities are forced to work together to solve something, the plan doesn’t go as smooth as advertised, but the final three scenes in Somalia do reinforce the overarching theme Buckley sets out to highlight: the truth can be found anywhere, even in a country you have no business being in.

While a majority of Dabka is spent showing Bahadur bucking convention (I mean c’mon he wears a baseball jersey to a meeting with a pirate, need I say more?), the lead character eventually has to leave the country before his story is complete.

What he does take away from the experience is self confidence and friendship — two things when shaken and blended together, make a cocktail of resilience.

It’s worth downing as a shot.