TORONTO – One of the most colorful and stylized political stories at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) this year is a documentary entitled The Skyjacker’s Tale. This totally absorbing and entertaining film, full of creative reenactments, spins a narrative about the murder of eight people at the Fountain Valley Golf Club in St Croix, Virgin Islands, in 1972. Pressured to find the murderers, the state apparatus rounds up several “guilty” suspects, puts them through torture, a sham trial with forced confessions – even though they were represented by the famed progressive attorney William Kunstler – and sends them off to eight life sentences. One of these unfortunate souls is Ishmael Labeet, the main subject of the film, who claims he never even went to the country club because it wasn’t his kind of people – meaning white.
Labeet’s life prior to the conviction involved a dishonorable discharge from the military during the Vietnam era for “refusing to kill people that looked like me and never did anything against me.” He went on to New York and joined the Black Panthers, where he developed his revolutionary credentials. After returning to his home in St. Croix he hung with revolutionary groups that committed petty crimes – robbing to fund their work – and was eventually arrested for the murders.
After serving 14 years in American prisons – they are described with great clarity in the film – he applies for habeas corpus. He goes back to St Croix, loses the case and is headed back to the U.S. handcuffed between two special agents to finish his eight life sentences when he chooses a much better option: He skyjacks the plane to Havana! Upon landing he is arrested and willingly serves seven more years in a prison that “looks like a vacation compared to the ones in the U.S!”
The movie actually starts at this point with him in Cuba, and the previous activities are shown in clever, vivid flashbacks. The 1984 skyjacking is artfully recreated using testimony from interviews with passengers who were on the plane back then, along with many others who are relevant to the trial, his life in St. Croix, the military, the Black Panthers, and most everywhere along his lifespan. He apologized to passengers who at first were frightened, offers them all “drinks on the house,” and was eventually described as “the most polite hijacker.”
The film explains how he got the gun on the plane, and how the hijacking took place. Labeet is walking free in the streets of Cuba (location not revealed) and is interviewed at several locations, with many friends and family who know his remarkable story. He claims to be a revolutionary, not a criminal, and much better off than the other guys who are still in prison for the rest of their lives.
The deftly crafted tale is directed by Canadian auteur Jamie Kastner (Kike Like Me, Secret Disco Revolution), who traveled to Cuba to learn more about this story. “I went down to meet him after I looked him up online. Murderer! Hijacker! Revolutionary! I was curious how these work together. I thought I was going to meet a mass murderer. I met him and he claims his innocence and begins to tell me this amazing story. I am shocked and intrigued by each new revelation he made. He’s a compelling lead character, a star in Cuba, funny, bright, sexy, a charismatic guy, and you believe him.” Kastner continues, “But as a journalist I had to check the facts. So to have the cops and investigators in St Croix confirming the details that he was indeed involved with revolutionary gangs” added credibility to his story.
I was curious about a “screenplay” credit in a documentary and Kastner’s creative use of re-enactments. He responds, “There is no narration per se, although some scenes are reenacted over dialog from real interviews. Recreations can be challenging. But any aesthetic tool you can do well or badly. Thin Blue Line is an example of it being well done.” He defines docudramas as “creative non-fiction,” adding, “The curse of a documentary is always what are you going to look at other than talking heads. Archived footage is always an asset but in my film – and since the trial in St. Croix happened back when recordings and smartphones were not available – there is very little footage to utilize.”
When asked if he felt Labeet was innocent or guilty, Kastner responds, “in the end…the murder mystery is really about something else – the justice system, whether or not it works. It’s about a guy who took the laws into his own hands, rather than a story about his guilt or innocence. One of Labeet’s defense attorneys says, “We can speculate all day whether these guys did it or not, but what we know for sure is they did not get a fair trial or anything else. There was a grave miscarriage of justice that was committed” and confirmed in this film.
When reminded that Assata Shakur is the best known American fugitive in Cuba, Kastner noted that, “just last month there was a list of about 80 American fugitives given asylum there over the years. But let’s say if Assata is #1 on the list – Labeet is in the top 5.”
Director: Jamie Kastner Producer: Jamie Kastner, Laura Baron Kastner
Cinematographer: Derek Rogers
Cast: Ishmael Muslim Ali, Margaret Ratner Kunstler, Michael Ratner