NEW YORK - It’s a familiar premise in Hollywood film: a good man in need of money is talked into participating in a crime against his better judgment. But in Fishing Without Nets, by first-time director Cutter Hodierne, an American, the protagonist is a poor Somali, and his crime is piracy.

Abdi, played by Abdikani Muktar, is a fisherman off the coast of Somalia, where pollution from foreign ships has ruined the catch. Desperate to support his wife and young son, Abdi is persuaded by a friend to help a group of pirates. They seize a French oil tanker and take the international crew hostage, hoping to extract a large ransom. But it’s an old ship, the hold is empty, and the ship’s owners are in no hurry to make a deal.

Hodierne, who is from California, said he began thinking about making the film in 2008, when he was 22 and read news accounts of Somali piracy in the Indian Ocean.

“I kind of wanted to make the big, all-encompassing film of piracy, and tell the story from every angle,” Hodierne said, “but the angle I kept coming back to, that really fascinated me the most, was the story of the pirates. I just was so intrigued by what would lead somebody to that point of doing something so desperate, and also so kind of audacious.”

He said he didn’t worry that he’d be able to make a believable film in a language he didn’t know, set in a culture he didn’t belong to. “It was just passion that drove me to do it, and I said there’s a lot I need to learn here, and so I just kind of tapped everybody that I could in my research process. I just knew that if I followed my curiosity, I would come across some interesting stuff.”

In 2010, Hodierne and his producing partners, Raphael Swann and John Hibey, also a co-writer, went to Mombasa, Kenya to make a short version of the film. They found their cast among Somali refugees living in the city: day laborers, fishermen, truck drivers. None had ever acted before.

“We would set up these informal auditions in restaurants and just like hangouts where Somalis would sit around and chew khat and drink tea, and we would audition people there, using a little video camera, not unlike how people in America cast short films with their friends,” Hodierne said. “We just kind of went out and made a new set of friends.”

When the short won a Sundance Film Festival grand jury prize, Vice Media stepped in with $2 million to fund a feature-length version. Hodierne shot it with many of the same Somali non-actors, again improvising the dialogue. Using a translator, Hodierne told the cast only the basics of what should happen in each scene.

“So they knew what was going to happen within a scene, and then they would improvise all the dialogue, so that it was in their voice,” Hodierne said. “And they were amazing at that. They add so much to it that I couldn’t have written on a page, so I consider them sort of co-writers of the movie.”

The story tracks Abdi’s fear for his family: He has used his last money to pay smugglers to get his wife and child into Yemen, where he hopes to join them, if only he can get his share of the ransom money. But as Abdi grows close to one of the hostages, a Frenchman treated brutally by other pirates, he’s increasingly troubled by his conscience. And the smugglers who are holding his wife and child are demanding more money.

Hodierne likes the description of Fishing Without Nets as an art house action film, and the unlikely combination of suspense and reflectiveness fits. “Powerful, deliberate and absolutely beautiful,” one critic described it. After limited theatrical release in the U.S., it will be released on video-on-demand. Hodierne also plans at least one screening in Mombasa for the cast and other Somalis in the city.