'The Skyjacker's Tale': Film Review | TIFF 2016

Courtesy of TIFF
A needlessly scrambled but TV-ready true-crime doc.

Safe for now in Cuba, Ishmael Muslim Ali admits to hijacking an American Airlines flight in 1984 (how could he not?) but still denies committing the murders that led to that crime.

One might expect, in a film called The Skyjacker's Tale, to hear a lot more detail of the crime than one gets from Jamie Kastner's documentary about Ishmael LaBeet's 1982 midair escape from U.S. custody. Here, even the acquisition of the gun LaBeet (now named Ishmael Muslim Ali) used is a literal afterthought — only during the credits does he laughingly recall how he brought it on board himself, smuggled in his underwear, after having assembled it piece-by-piece in jail.

Is Ali joking about how he got the gun? Kastner doesn't seem to care. Surprisingly, the film is equally lackadaisical about whether Ali was really one of those who killed eight people at a St. Croix golf course in 1972. The only question it really cares about is whether Ali and his co-defendants were tortured by local cops before they made the confessions that put them in jail for the rest of their lives. (Until LaBeet took an unscheduled flight to Cuba, that is.) The question of decades-old torture is an important one, of course, but hardly makes this a must-see doc when there are so many present-tense stories of police misconduct to investigate.

We meet Ishmael in present-day Cuba, where he seems to enjoy a happy life with family. The doc begins by pitting scenes of his present happiness against interviews with passengers on the plane he hijacked, several of whom are clearly furious that he remains free. But after quickly sketching the event that got him to a Cuban tarmac, Kastner starts a fairly confused account of how he got in custody to begin with. We get a primer on the Virgin Islands and race/class friction there, then hear of the 1972 massacre that was either a robbery gone wrong or a flare-up of class warfare. Then we're back in Cuba, listening to stories of Ishmael's childhood.

The movie keeps bouncing around in time and space for reasons that aren't apparent, doing little to get us invested in the backstory to the event we've come to see discussed. It's only an hour into the 75-minute film that we finally see Ishmael imprisoned (in American jails) for what he may or may not have done at that golf course — then hear of the habeas corpus plea that got him sent back to St. Croix and facilitated this skyjacking.

During the film's midsection, Kastner collects conflicting accounts from many lawyers and policemen about how Ishmael and his co-defendants were treated in police custody. Despite having no evidence, locals simply assumed LaBeet was one of the killers because he'd long been on the run for other crimes — "I stuck up so many motherf—ing tourists," Ishmael recalls, framing his thefts as political acts — and there were clearly many problems with his prosecution. After giving a good deal of screen time to Legrand Lee, a white Virgin Islands cop who helped catch LaBeet, Kastner eventually shows his repulsively "clever" acknowledgement that he helped torture the suspects.

Viewers are left wondering if that abuse alone is supposed to put us on Ishmael Muslim Ali's side, to make us not care whether he helped kill those people. Though Kastner gives us plenty of reasons to lament how mainland wealth and corporate interests were exploiting locals in the Virgin Islands, he certainly doesn't convince us that murdering golfers (to say nothing of the golf club's employees) was a justified response.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF Docs)
Production company: Cave 7
Director-screenwriter-producer: Jamie Kastner
Director of photography: Derek Rogers
Editor: Jorge Parra
Composers: David Wall, Jamie Shields, Adam White
Sales: Laura Baron Kastner, C7 International

Not rated, 75 minutes