The timing of Jamie Kastner’s feature The Skyjacker’s Tale couldn’t be better.
In late 2014, while the Toronto director worked on the movie, the U.S. and Cuba announced the restoration of diplomatic relations after a 53-year shutdown. This gave the U.S. Department of Justice hope the Cuban government would return fugitives hiding out in the island country, and their top-five list includes convicted murderer Ishmael Muslim Ali (formerly Ronald LaBeet), the titular character of The Skyjacker’s Tale.
“[His return] is a real possibility, which would be terrible for him but good for the film,” says Kastner, sipping an iced coffee in Toronto’s colourful Kensington Market. Getting a hold of great stories like Ali’s, he adds, is “about dumb luck, running with it, and hopefully more dumb luck.” Speaking of Ali’s potential extradition, Kastner continues, “There’s a great cliffhanger that makes the film timelier by the day, yet the way geopolitics works it won’t be resolved for several months, if not years. So hopefully the film is both timely and evergreen.”
In addition to developments in Cuba, The Skyjacker’s Tale incorporates other themes that are very much in today’s headlines, including race relations, police brutality and the lopsided division of wealth in America. And if Kastner’s sympathy for Ali raises eyebrows, there’s more to this tangled saga than meets the eye.
The story originates on Saint Croix, one of the Virgin Islands the U.S. bought from Denmark a century ago. The poverty-stricken but scenic territory was developed as a playground for the rich after Americans were prohibited from visiting Cuba. However, crime against tourists was common, and on September 6, 1972, a group of masked Afro-Caribbean men robbed the posh, Rockefeller-owned Fountain Valley Golf Course, killing eight people in the process, seven of them white. Charges were laid against five well-known local criminals, including LaBeet, an embittered Vietnam veteran.
Leading up to their trial, the defense team was bolstered by noted Center for Constitutional Rights lawyers William Kunstler (who defended the Chicago Seven), Michael Ratner and Margaret Ratner, who pointed to questionable evidence and confessions allegedly obtained through torture. Certainly there was a strong economic incentive for the prosecution to quickly resolve the case, get the criminals off the island and try to restore Saint Croix’s viability as a tourist destination. The five defendants, who were associated with the Black Power movement, were found guilty and each was awarded eight consecutive life sentences and whisked away to U.S. prisons.
If all this isn’t story enough, in 1982 LaBeet was brought to a jail in St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands and held there while the court heard his ultimately unsuccessful appeal for a permanent transfer to Saint Croix. On New Year’s Eve 1984, he was to be flown to New York, accompanied by three guards, but he managed to sneak a gun onboard and forced the pilot to land in Cuba. He spent seven years in Cuban prison, afterwards starting a family and living in Cuba as a free man. He claims innocence in the robbery and murders.
This is a different film for Kastner, known as a pop culture expert with a light touch whose films range from Djangomania! (2005) and The Secret Disco Revolution (2012) to Kike Like Me (2007) and Recessionize! For Fun and Profit! (2011).
“I’ve done films I characterise as funny films on serious subjects or serious films on funny subjects,” he reflects. Kike Like Me has humour but it’s about anti-Semitism. Recessionize! found a light way into a dark world of disaster, and the disco thing was sort of the opposite. That said, here I’m dealing with eight murders, a skyjacking and geopolitical matters. I thought, ‘Why is Ishmael trusting me with his story?’ But with the filmmaking experiences I’ve had, I felt this was the right time to take this next step.”
He’s accustomed to inspiration falling out of the sky, so to speak. The Secret Disco Revolution was born when executives at specialty channel Bravo rejected his pitch for a film about playwright Harold Pinter and, in an odd jump, suggested a disco film instead. The Skyjacker’s Tale came to him even more randomly.
“My mechanic has a friend who goes to Cuba and came across Ali in a local bar and gleaned that he was interested in telling his story,” he recounts. “I sent some of my films and a letter to him via this conduit and started getting text responses: ‘Mr. Kestner [sic], you da man. I got good vibes about you.’ A week later I was on a plane and taking a cab across Cuba while reading Harold Willocks’ Massacre in Paradise: The Untold Story of the Fountain Valley Massacre and thinking I was going to meet a mass murderer.”
With Ali on board, Kastner knew he had a rich, multilayered story. He pitched the project at the 2014 Hot Docs Forum international market, which didn’t faze him.
“I’m a ham,” he says. “I’ve studied acting and appeared on camera, which helps with the public performance aspects of financing documentaries. It’s always intimidating to talk to a roomful of commissioning editors, but that was my fourth time pitching there and it feels like home. And it’s useful. Expressing the virtues of your story in a compact, engaging way is related to what you do in a film. When I get to editing I find myself thinking, ‘What was this film about again?’ and looking back on what I came up with in the pitch.”
Made through Kastner’s Cave 7 Productions, The Skyjacker’s Tale got rolling with $11,000 for development from the Shaw Media-Hot Docs Funds, followed by $300,000 for production from the Canada Media Fund’s English POV Program, $75,000 from the OMDC Film Fund, and $75,000 from the Telefilm Canada/Rogers Group of Funds Theatrical Documentary Program. Kastner pegs the budget at “north of $800,000.”
Super Channel scooped English television rights, with Bell Media’s Canal D taking French. Kastner laughingly recalls Canal D senior programming director Jean-Pierre Laurendeau, who has licensed his docs before, commenting, “‘This film ought to silence all the doubters.’ And I thought, ‘What doubters?’ He meant it as a compliment.”
Not so funny was the fact that, months later, Super Channel filed for bankruptcy. Parent company Allarco Entertainment continued to operate the service throughout its period of creditor protection, and hopes to find its way to profitability. Its first step was to terminate some programming licenses, but not for The Skyjacker’s Tale. The channel is scheduled to pay Kastner its fee, which he interim financed, by the time of its broadcast window next spring.
“They say they will still need Cancon,” the filmmaker says. “This doesn’t fill anyone with feelings of confidence, and I feel terribly for the producers whose films have been disclaimed. It’s the cruel logic of the finance world. I hope it works out for Super Channel, not least because it is one of the last few homes for creative feature-length docs and it would be a shame to whatever extent that is lost.”
Ahead of TIFF, Kastner picked up a European broadcast sale from ZDF/Arte, which wanted the full-length 75-minute version, although he does have a cut for a one-hour TV window. (His editor is Jorge Parra, with whom he collaborated on the CBC stand-up comedy series Still Standing.) The Canadian distributor is A71 Entertainment, which plans to get the movie on screens soon after TIFF, unless Cave 7, handling international sales for the first time, lands a major U.S. sale, in which case they will revise that strategy.
The budget covered a lot of crew travel to the Caribbean, but Kastner hopes the money also shows on screen. There is cinematography by Gemini Award winner Derek Rogers, CSC (Cube) and substantial dramatic recreations—including the skyjacking, shot on a set in Scarborough. Although existing historical footage was limited, three-time Gemini/Canadian Screen Award-winning archive producer Elizabeth Klinck dug deep, coming up with Caribbean material from the 1970s.
“‘The Klinck,’ as I call her, turned up not just great quantities of this obscure material, but also gems like footage shot by a defunct right-wing news channel once owned by Coors that included the [Fountain Valley] golf course, Saint Croix at the time, and even Ali’s sister being interviewed,” Kastner says. Many talking heads were also tracked down—from cops allegedly involved in the torture to crew and passengers on the skyjacked plane.
For this, Kastner thanks researchers Sheila Mandell, Joanne Loton and a familiar name—Susan Kastner, his mother, an author and former Toronto Star columnist who has worked on her son’s productions in various capacities. “She’s slumming it with me once again,” the director deadpans. He credits Mandell with finding Legrand Lee, a white officer from the Virgin Islands Police Department who now lives in Puerto Rico and who makes an explosive onscreen confession.
The filmmaker has also brought his wife, Laura Baron Kastner, a former Bay Street litigator and yoga studio owner, on board at Cave 7 as a producer. “I’ve lured her away with promises of the riches and glory of the documentary world,” he quips. They are also executive producing other filmmakers’ work, including the food-themed feature Stage (working title) for CBC’s Documentary Channel. Its producers are Abby Ainsworth and Lindsay Kutner, makers of the web series In the Weeds.
That makes Laura just the latest Kastner to enter the media biz. Jamie’s uncle John Kastner is a four-time Emmy Award-winning documentarian known for his work for CBC’s The Fifth Estate and social-justice features from The Lifer and the Lady (1984) to Out of Mind, Out of Sight (2014). John’s mother Rose—Jamie’s grandmother—was a writer who co-produced with her son. Another uncle, Peter, was an actor whose career peaked early with starring roles in Don Owen’s Nobody Waved Goodbye (1964) and Francis Ford Coppola’s You’re a Big Boy Now (1966). Aunt Kathy is a veteran broadcaster who has also contributed to Jamie’s films.
Jamie learned at Uncle John’s side, and acknowledges that influence in The Skyjacker’s Tale, in which the audience starts off convinced of Ali’s guilt, but then doubt creeps in.
“I learned that trick years ago when I worked as an associate producer on my uncle’s CBC film Chickens Are People, Too (2000). He’s a brilliant structuralist. He takes an extreme chicken rights activist whom we see one way at the beginning—and then we look at her completely differently by the end,” he explains.
The question is put to Kastner, as he puts it on camera to defence attorney Leroy Mercer: does he think Ali committed the murders? Was the filmmaker possibly swayed by his subject’s charm and eloquence? The onscreen image of Ali changing his grandson’s diaper is certainly difficult to reconcile with that of a masked gunman murdering innocent people. Kastner’s response mirrors Mercer’s.
“You start the film thinking the key mystery is whether he’s guilty. Hopefully by the end you realise this alone is no longer the key question. What happened to these guys is ‘poor black person justice’ in America,” he says. “What do I know? That an intelligent guy with many good qualities has made a compelling case to me that he didn’t do it. How does one get to the objective truth in such a matter?”
Filmmaking, of course, is a matter of selecting and discarding information. In a follow-up email exchange, Kastner is asked why he omitted the fact that during the trial LaBeet reportedly exclaimed, “I killed them all. I don’t give a fuck. I killed them all.”
“The defendants shouted all sorts of things out of exasperation at the proceedings,” Kastner writes. “Some even suggested these were semi-orchestrated by Kunstler, following the mode of the [Chicago Seven] trial. I believe they were spontaneous and that the remark, when viewed in the context in which it was said, was more of an ironic ‘fuck you’ to what Ali saw as the sham of the proceedings, rather than a meaningful admission of anything.”
American broadcasters have told him they would be more comfortable with the project if they could be sure Ali was innocent. Yet the doc is of a piece with popular open-ended true crime works such as HBO’s The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, Netflix’s Making a Murderer and the Serial podcast. And to many Americans—even those who were around in 1972—this story will be fresh, as the Fountain Valley massacre was overshadowed by the Munich massacre, which ended on the same day.
Hollywood also has expressed interest in a dramatisation, which excites Kastner, who considers himself a “dramatist manqué” and owns remake rights. He is currently writing a couple of different adaptations of the story and is in talks with U.S. packaging agents.
“I feel the world I came into is crying out to be a dramatic movie,” he says. “It has eight murders and a skyjacking. The interest is very encouraging, although I’ve met with people in that world before and it can be as elusive as we all hear about, so at this point in my career I’m not jumping up and down—yet.”