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article image‘A Skyjacker’s Tale’ director mirrors own uncertainty on screen Special

By Sarah Gopaul     Jan 20, 2017 in Entertainment
We had a chance to talk to award-winning director Jamie Kastner about his latest documentary, ‘A Skyjacker’s Tale,’ which chronicles a significant miscarriage of justice but leaves audiences to decide against who.
Sometimes the best, most intriguing stories are the ones you could never have made up. In 1972, eight people are murdered on a Rockefeller golf course in the U.S. Virgin Islands by masked gunmen. Out of the hundreds of men questioned, five are charged and convicted of the crime by a judge with ties to the Rockefellers. Maintaining their innocence, they spend the next several years trying to appeal the eight consecutive life sentences they each received. On New Year’s Eve 1984, frustrated by their lack of progress, Ishmael Muslim Ali (formerly Labeet) hijacks a plan during a prison transfer and redirects it to Cuba, where he’s lived ever since.
Canadian filmmaker Jamie Kastner came across this story by chance and knew it was one he’d have to help tell. Using a compelling combination of interviews, re-enactments, never-before-seen archival footage and illustrations, the director draws audiences into the middle of this unbelievable, absorbing story and then leaves them there to make their own decision — does injustice lie with Ali’s escape or conviction? In 75 minutes, viewers’ opinions are liable to change more than once, but that just speaks to the skillful editing and composition created by Kastner. As President Barack Obama rekindled America’s relationship with Cuba, Ali’s fate remains uncertain.
We had a chance to sit down with Kastner at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival to talk about his gripping documentary, A Skyjacker’s Tale, and getting to know one of the FBI’s top five most wanted criminals.
Digital Journal: How did you come across Ali’s story?
Jamie Kastner: I came across it completely at random through my car mechanic. I drive a stupid 30-year-old car, which I love unhealthily. So I have, out of necessity, a close relationship with this mechanic who happens to be a very bright, interesting guy who knows I do docs. And one day he said to me, “I have a buddy who goes down to Cuba. He met this guy in a bar who hijacked a plane and wants to tell his story.” Of all the times people come up to you and they know you’re in the business and say, “Oh you’ve got to do a film on this. You have to do a film on this.” For once, this was an incredible story. We googled the guy from the mechanic’s shop and got the bare bones of this evermore intriguing story that involved the story behind the hijacking as well a murder of eight people on a golf course and then some kind of intonations of black power political activism. I didn’t understand how it all fit together, but I was mightily intrigued.
DJ: So clearly he wasn’t hiding the fact that that’s why he was in Cuba, if he’s just telling people in bars?
JK: He’s a bit of a blabbermouth. I mean, bless him. I was surprised too. He is such an interesting guy. He’s such a bright guy. And he was motivated to tell this story I think out of his awareness of the saleability of the story. Not that I bought it per say because you don’t do that in a documentary. He was motivated to do it in order to help his co-defendants who were not lucky enough to hijack planes and have been rotting away in American prisons for 43 years. So he knows the story has some kind of value and that I truly believe is why he did this. And as someone who can’t travel and can’t have a brilliant press attaché, he got the movie made, didn’t he? Not bad.
DJ: You’ve said you were intrigued by the story — was that your sole motivation, or did you want to find out the truth behind the whole story?
JK: I knew immediately that it was an incredible story. It would’ve been enough if it had just been an incredible story. There’s so much to this that I would’ve been motivated to do this if it only had one component, let alone the half dozen that it did. I’ve been thinking that in fact, at a certain level, this is quite a departure for me from the films I’ve done in the past. But on the other hand, it’s kind of a political thriller and I have dealt with a lot of these issues in different ways. I’ve done stuff on protests, I’ve done stuff on the economy and politics, and I’ve done stuff on race relations and identity politics in completely different ways. So in ways this was in my wheelhouse, although it may not have obviously appeared that way from the outside.
I was deeply intrigued by how the black power question fit into this story and fit into this bizarre original crime with this murder on a golf course. And when I first went to meet him, having only read the rather sketchy one-sided stuff that is easily available about these 40-year-old stories, I believed I was on my way to meet a mass murderer hijacker. When I met him, I got a completely different story. Then I was intrigued to know how these two versions of events fit together and how these two narratives had come to be and why. So I pass on this fascination, hopefully, to the audience. And I think it’s structured so the audience goes through that process of intrigue and confoundment which I experienced.
DJ: Did that inspire the way you put the movie together — to mimic the feelings you had while creating it?
JK: In a way. I’ve done these other kinds of films in which somehow I’m finding the need to beat a narrative out of nothing, out of a topic. It’s like carving a narrative through line out of the raw rock face, struggling with my editor. In this case, it was the opposite challenge. It was an embarrassment of riches story wise and the challenge was there is so much incredibly good story material, how am I going to structure it? I ultimately wanted to do something because in whatever form, I do like to make films that entertain and engage audiences, and inspire them to think and make their own decisions about things. In effect in a case like this, which is a hijacking story, a crime story, a courtroom drama and with the first-person intersecting with geopolitical shifts, i.e. the Cuba relationship [with the United States] story, as the framework, I wanted to put the audience in a juror’s seat to have these multiple viewpoints presented in a reasonably even-handed way for them; as they discover the point-by-point unbelievable twists and turns of this tale, I want them to be inspired to think about it and draw their own conclusions.
Jamie Kastner  director of  A Skyjacker s Tale
Jamie Kastner, director of 'A Skyjacker's Tale'
C2C Communications
DJ: How did you maintain that objectivity while actually putting the film together because it seems pretty unbiased? It’s really just presenting all the facts.
JK: Good. Thank you. I’m glad to hear that. As you get when you’re watching it hopefully, you’re encountering a sequence of quite convincing, compelling characters giving often completely contrasting accounts of a series of events. I think as a good journalist does, you go and do your due diligence, gather the facts, and present them in as balanced a way as you can. It’s not to say that I have no biases or opinions about this. Obviously the film I made is different from many others that could be made on the same topic, and the account of events is quite different from that which some of the characters given a one-man show might do with it. But I believe I’ve gotten close to the truth as I see it and I believe there is a gross miscarriage of justice at the core of this story that seems very clearly to have happened. So I feel it was part of my job to expose that.
DJ: You don’t have to necessarily reveal your opinion of whether you think he’s guilty or innocent of the initial crime, but did your opinion change throughout while you were making the movie?
JK: Quite honestly, I felt different about that at different times in the process because you just get one person’s side of the story and that sounds pretty convincing and you believe that. And then you get a completely different side of the story and that sounds pretty convincing and you believe that. You’re like a detective or juror. I did want to put the audience in the same position I was in with that feeling of did he/didn’t he and, moreover, what was the real crime here? In the end, I think it starts off with a murder-mystery element, but ultimately I think that’s not really what the film is about. It’s about these questions of justice and injustice, and one guy taking it into his own hands and running with it.
DJ: Was it difficult to find so many people from both sides of the story who were willing to talk to you for the film?
JK: It was extremely difficult to amass this cast of characters because I was determined — having gotten access to [Ali], which was the first step — I was determined to have only characters who could speak first-hand to what went on; who experienced it in one way or another from either side of things. As a trial itself would progress, so each side would get a fair shake at giving their version. I didn’t want pundits or authors or whatever. In fact I interviewed some journalists who had reported… I interviewed a great journalist named Calvin Trillin, a famous New Yorker writer who is actually known for being a kind of god of the foodie movement, but he’s written an incredible range of stuff over the years. He happened to have reported on the Virgin Islands in the early ‘70s shortly after this. Ultimately I didn’t use it in the film, not because he’s not great and compelling, but it was a degree removed from everyone else’s experience. Everybody in the film was involved and it was extremely challenging to find all those people.
I hired the best team of researchers I could find and we just set about beating the bushes, and it was a fascinating experience to see how eventually people started to tumble out. You’re dealing with a 40-year-old crime on a Caribbean island that has hurricanes at regular intervals; so archives get washed out along with people and their homes and possessions. And you’re dealing with their most notorious crime, which everybody in the U.S. Virgin Islands still seems to blame for having ruined tourism on the island — again I say rightly or wrongly. Plus I’m a white guy from Toronto going down to this Caribbean island, which is still a very racially fraught place. Why are they going to tell me, an outsider par excellence, and share all this touchy material? But fortunately, eventually in the way these things work, you gain one person’s trust and that person vouches you with another person and eventually you find your way to the heart of it. It was an incredible experience. It makes me grateful for this gig because where else do you get — it can be extremely scary to get to these places on occasion — but to really get inside other people’s lives and other places. I’ve experienced Cuba in the way you never could as a tourist. And that alone, aside from that fact that it was a hijacker, was just so fascinating.
DJ: Did you try to speak with the other men who were convicted in the massacre?
JK: I did speak with the other men who were convicted in the massacre. They appear in the film, though only in portraits. It took some doing to get into that prison to interview them. I didn’t put it in the film in the end because it’s a fascinating feature of editing and filmmaking to see how much the dramatic structure will bear. You just don’t know until you try it and I certainly tried with them and many other fascinating, absolutely golden pieces of material which landed on the cutting room floor. Because however great they may be individually, the narrative structure that you’re carving out will not sustain any more, even great, stuff. You cannot have this detour. With these guys also, it’s a very complicated story with many points of view and a lot of characters already. And to bring in another three points of view — I was not able to. Even though I did get to them, I couldn’t interview them individually and even if I had… I mean look at how much one guy’s story narrated. My access to them was much more limited because they’re in prison and I didn’t feel I could do it justice within this narrative framework. I was fascinated meeting with them, I’m still in touch with them and I hope this film does something to help them because they’ve spent 43 years in jail unjustly, I think.
A scene from  A Skyjacker s Tale
A scene from 'A Skyjacker's Tale'
DJ: The film is very engaging, yet it avoids the tabloid feel of many true crime serials that you find on TV. Did you set out to make something different? What was your strategy?
JK: Aside from geopolitical events shifting in my favour and making this a very timely story... I refer, of course, to U.S. and Cuba happening when I was already well into this story, and had been down there and was interviewing [Ali]. Then did the news of Obama’s announcement come and who could’ve possibly predicted that? However it did turn this from a fascinating historical thing to a front-page news story, and that’s not going to go away anytime soon. Also, unfortunately, all the incidents that have inspired the Black Lives Matter movement began cropping up in horrifying numbers, making this again feel like something that was out of yesterday’s paper, not 40 years ago. Talk about plus ça change…
Another thing that was a complete coincidence was the renaissance or blossoming of the true crime genre. I was already working on this when Serial came out, then the Jinx, then Making a Murderer, and as a producer you look at these things as possibly a double-edged sword. Initially you think, “Oh shit, they beat me to the punch on a story like that.” But on the other hand, it’s good all around. This genre is incredibly popular at the moment and I have a quite distinctive contribution to the form that has its own unique story, character, and Caribbean vibe as I characterized it. And this was, again, before all these things came out. But I was with my cameraman, thinking about what the look of this film we wanted to build was and the phrase I kept bandying about was “tropical noir.” Then lo and behold, it’s noir, noir, noir. I’m happy it’s popular and I look with great interest at all those fine projects, and I think this is a unique, twisting tale within that form. But not at all planned. Just dumb luck that it should be a hot genre right now.
Before that I think this kind of genre and different ways of treating it have been more tabloid and cheesier and recreations were off. They were poo-pooed for a long time and not used in serious quote/unquote “documentaries.” In my last film I didn’t do recreations — I did complete fiction, which was even more unusual for a documentary. In The Secret Disco Revolution, it was imagined characters who were the embodiment of an academic’s theories of what disco was. So that was nifty. I also have a background in theatre so I’m quite comfortable working with actors and dramatic material. But I refer to the recreations vis-à-vis your question because it often was something that was done cheesily in true crime shows before it became cool again. Now this generation or era of true crime stuff is taking its aesthetic cues probably more from the Errol Morris school, Thin Blue Line, creative, non-fiction storytelling… Cohen brothers-y… whatever. I would say I’ve maybe even thrown things in a slight Tarantino direction in this one, which was an aesthetic choice that came from the vibe of my protagonist who in certain regards does feel like he’s just stepped out of a Blaxploitation movie of the early ‘70s. And indeed that was the last time he was on the street. He’s preserved in aspic in that way.
DJ: Looking at the film, it’s a collection of interviews, archival footage, dramatizations, courtroom illustrations and that succeeds in avoiding the talking head syndrome of most documentaries. So I was wondering how you decided to use this thing at this point in the story, and particularly how you decided what you wanted to dramatize.
JK: You’ve put your finger on it. The curse and challenge of documentaries is what are we going to look at other than talking heads, however great the story is? When I was looking at the kind of films that were really breaking through at the time that I came across this story, quite randomly as I’ve told you, it was films like Man on a Wire and Searching for Sugar Man. And I was thinking to myself, how do I find one of those stories? Well, you get lucky basically. And the one thing like those stories I found was an American story with global resonance, an incredibly charismatic lead character, and a Hollywood-worthy third act. The one thing they had that I did not have was a treasure trove of found stock footage or home movies or something.
So my challenge was how to give this a look visually that would be compelling and interesting. The story was so dramatic that I felt that I had some confidence that I would be able to do non-cheesy recreations. But I feel there’s a real challenge — even some biopics look cheesy if the main character is too well-known. So there’s the exponential challenge of having in the same film the same person and a dramatic portrayal of them. I actually worked with a terrific casting director who I’ve worked with before, Marjorie Lecker, who worked with me to find people who would work. So that was part of the decision. It wasn’t getting them to play themselves, but them 30 or 40 years ago. I feel it’s a tool that has to be used sparingly in documentary and even in editing we cut way back from the amount we shot. Not wildly, but very sparing.
There was talk and some of my collaborators were saying do the courtroom recreation too. But I just thought you don’t want it to outstay its welcome as a thing. I work with a fantastic stock footage researcher, Elizabeth Klinck, who I’ve worked with many years. And look at the stuff she unearthed. She found stuff of Ali’s sister giving an interview 40 years ago on Caribbean television. So through these various things, I could kind of create a pastiche that would give the feel of this world and this time. And like any movie wants to do, make the audience feel like they’re back in time. He was such a strong character and I honestly think so was the rest of the supporting cast, if you want to call them that. They were all so strong that just from the kind of timbre and tone and tenor of their tales, just to keep this alliteration going, it cast a kind of spell and you just sort of took your cue from that and just wanted to get into that groove and get back into those worlds and just run with it.
DJ: To close, do you have an update on Ali’s status and where that sits now with the changing relationship with Cuba and the U.S.?
JK: It’s a total cliff-hanger and he’s so macho, he’ll never admit to being nervous about it. It’s not just that he’s macho, but as he says in the film, look at what he’s been through already — what can they do worse to him? But still I think he’d rather stay there than not. However, even just in the last month, initially they said the American fugitives are not on the table at all; but last month there was a report that they’ve opened talks about swapping American fugitives for Cuban spies in the U.S. At one time there was a list of an estimated 80 or so American fugitives who’d been given political asylum in Cuba. I don’t know how many of those people are still alive, that’s going back 40 years, but some estimates are as few as six. But in any case, even when there were 80, he was one of the top five most wanted on that list. The number one person on that list is Assata Shakur and that’s who they’re talking about swapping. If she’s no. 1 and they’re talking about swapping her, he can’t be far behind. So it’s a true cliff-hanger.
DJ: Thank you so much.
JK: Thank you.
More about A Skyjacker's Tale, Jamie Kastner, Ishmael Muslim Ali, Documentary, TIFF 2016
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