Conducting an interview and making a documentary film do work under a lot of the same principles and without a good subject the odds of getting anything meaningful to talk about are slim to none.
The Skyjacker’s Tale gives us the tale of Ishmael Muslim Ali who after being convicted in a notorious murder trial, hijacked an American Airlines plane and diverted it to Cuba. Ever since, Ali has resided in exile and maintains his innocence of the grisly murder of eight people in a wealthy country club in the US Virgin Islands.
A compelling and electric subject like Ishmael deserves a director with just as much electricity and emotional juice as he has. Enter director Jamie Kastner (The Secret Disco Revolution) digging into both sides of this case revealing the socioeconomic circumstances that change conventional views of the case not only in how it was handled then but how we even look at it today. Is Ali a victim, criminal…or both?
During TIFF last year I got the unique chance to sit down with the boisterous and energetic Jamie Kastner to talk about how he discovered this story, the importance of the documentary subject and making sure that you get the facts of a story across while being entertaining all at the same time.
Dave Voigt: Congratulations on the film because I really got a kick out of it and for the documentary form it is always so hard to find that balance and walk the line between delivering facts but also delivering an entertaining experience. What was it that ultimately drew you to this story?
Jamie Kastner: It really is like you just said…but around the time that my last movie premiered here at TIFF; Secret Disco Revolution which was just sort of finishing its cycle and it all went really well even though selling movies is always really an uphill battle and I was thinking about what were the kinds of movies that are breaking through. From a doc perspective it was things like Man On Wire and Searching For Sugarman and they are great films with strong subjects and great international resonance. Charismatic leads, some hidden slices of some pretty fascinating history, and in those cases a huge treasure trove of stock/archival footage so in my case, two out of three wasn’t bad! (Laughs)
I came to this story completely at random thanks to my mechanic who told me that he goes down to Cuba and met a hijacker in a bar who wanted to tell his story, and I mean like any good bar story you love to hear it but you don’t necessarily believe it until we Googled the guy and yes he had hijacked this plane and there was this story of a murder with suggestions of him being a part of this splinter Black Power movement at the time and to say the least all these elements were very intriguing. There was some genuine drama here that we could work that also pretty conveniently dovetailed with a lot of my personal interests and stories that I wanted to tell. While at a glance I will admit that I have done very different films in the past but the more that I think about it, with films about protest, racial identity, economic disaster and of social cultural movements of the 70’s so in a way I was secretly preparing to do this film! (laughs)
DV: In many ways this is probably (at least from a traditional standpoint) your most accessible film that you’ve ever made and I’ve always wondered, especially with the documentary form when do you ultimately know that you have a movie? Does it come in the research, the editing, the film because in those early days I have to imagine you are flying a little blind to see if this will pay off in the way that it does.
JK: Indeed (smiles) I’m enjoying this conversation so much right now that I could go off on so many different tangents right now but I’ll try and stay on point. When I met this guy…because the story was so incredible enough and just the embarrassment of riches for documentary material because I could see so clearly how this had the potential to be extremely entertaining, I mean it sounds like a fictional feature with a hijacking, celebrity trials and murder but it also contained so many interesting questions surrounding issues of race and power but you would get into them along the way rather than have me as a storyteller clubbing the audience over the head with it, but ultimately I knew that this guy was a star the second I met him.
As a part of my apprenticeship over the years I have been in journalism of one kind or another for about the past twenty years and I’ve been doing documentaries for 12 years and at some point I ended up apprenticing with uncle John Kastner; a great documentary filmmaker in his own right and he himself had an interesting training working with the deposed producers of the Quiz Show scandal back in the 60’s when they were sent up to Canada in exile. He ultimately imparted to me a strictly showbiz sense of rating the watch ability of documentary characters. Giving them A/B/C ratings along the way and while I was working as his associate producer before I was doing my own films and I learned to get the sense that when you are dealing with real people and you want to make a compelling film then they damn well better be GREAT on camera, when I met this guy I knew he was an A+++ all the way. He’s charismatic, he’s sexy, he’s scary, he’s funny and no matter what you may think of him you KNOW that he’s just great company. I knew it would be challenging to make sure that I got all of the other necessary components around this guy into the film. Never mind the cloak and dagger of filming in Cuba with a guy on the FBI’s most wanted list, and I won’t say it was the easy part…but ultimately once I had him I knew I had gold but the rest of it was going to at least be equally as challenging to pull off.
DV: Was he willing or did it take a little bit of convincing on your part?
JK: Ok, so obviously I had this contact as I mentioned before and through this intermediary I sent a letter and some films, and then I start getting some text messages back saying “Mr Kastner, you da man I got good vibes about you”…and at the time I was online dating so I was so baffled wondering who this was from (wink and smile) then I realized it a Cuban number and very quickly we start corresponding so I decide that I have to strike while the iron is hot, so I go down there. I’m taking this bumpy cab ride across Cuba, because my resort is at one end and his at the other…I mean my last film was about Disco so the stakes here felt a lot more real although getting to Gloria Gaynor was hardly something I’d call easy either. So I am in the cab and reading this self published book about the trial from twenty years ago and I figure that I am going to be meeting this guy who is a mass murderer. He put me through various vetting processes as he met the cab on the out skirts of town, then rode with me in the cab until we sat and talked in a public place for awhile until he had decided that my heart was in the right place and he was going to feel comfortable with this whole process. He needed to know that I wasn’t there to screw him or that I worked for the CIA or anything like that, and then eventually he would invite me back to his home and things like that. He made up his mind about me, I think relatively quickly plus I truly feel like he was motivated to tell this story because he feels badly for his co-defendants in the original crime who were not fortunate enough to have the opportunity to hijack a plane like he did to get to Cuba and gain a certain measure of freedom. His co-defendants having been rotting in various American jails for 43 years and he is a very shroud guy because he knows that there is a certain amount of saleability to this story and his motivated to do it. I believe that his is sincere in hoping to reveal some of the truth in that case that happened so long ago, in order to help these guys basically before they die.
DV: A good subject is always so pivotal for a great documentary; do you think you could have done this film without him?
JK: (Pauses) No you know I don’t think so because when I first found out about this story and was trying to inform myself about it as much as I possibly could before meeting the subject and based on the information that was out there you really do get a portrait of a person that is a lot more reduced then you’d expect and want for a documentary subject as it just painted kind of plainly as the “Baddest Motherfucker To Ever Walk The Face of the Earth” and it was an intriguing but very narrow view of the story based on how it was reported on at the time. For all intents and purposes it was just a very one sided argument. Had I not met him, I just don’t know how else I would have heard about it, and I wouldn’t have gotten a sense of all the different versions of the events and the alternatives to how it all could have gone down, which I was then able (thanks to my research team) to track down other people in the Virgin Islands where it all took place who corroborated events in some cases in contradicted in some others and it showed me that there really was more than meets the eye on this one. I don’t see how this could have been more than a short segment on this quirky, interesting historical event without this guy. Incidentally this story also ended up dovetailing with a number of current hot button issues because I was already knee deep into it and had done a key interview with him right when Obama’s announcement about Cuba. It suddenly took this historical thing and turned it into front page news and the really unfortunate side of that is that so much of what we uncover about the police and FBI procedure back in the days of the original crime sounds like they are reports from yesterday’s news and it makes for a sad bookend to it all in many ways.
DV: I really do feel like that is also the magic of the movie as well because you don’t apologize for him. There’s never any doubt that Ishmael Muslim Ali is a bad man, but also that he is someone who has been wronged and it allows for empathy at the very least because while we know he’s a bad man, he’s also not the man that he’s being painted out to be either.
JK: It was a different thing from other films I have made, something that in many ways is a little more akin to a classic documentary style in the sense that it focused on this one guy where I had to spend a lot of time with him, where as other projects I’ve done, I’ve just been a tourist in other people’s worlds or I am just building to a larger point. However this guy I really had to be embedded with him in order to truly gain his trust. It’s just a fact that people will relax and open up to you the more time you spend with them. I got so much information from him the first time “Off The Record” but it took the second visit for him to say a lot of that stuff on camera. I even told him one time that no one who was trying to paint themselves as a victim would also brag about being such an accomplished stick up man and he does that and I told him that basically means that you are willing to cop to the crimes that you did commit. It was never about painting him out to be a saint but the question almost always comes up and it really makes for such an interesting narrative enigma to wonder if he really did it at all, but at the end of the day the film really isn’t about that at all. It’s about larger questions of justice and how it is doled out and about a guy who took justice into his own hands rightly or wrongly.
DV: And the way it all plays out, I mean it’s hard not to see what a sham it all was and how it went down.
JK: In the stages in which I came to understand this story. You meet him, it’s incredible enough that you are meeting this hijacker and then he tells you about this incredible miscarriage of justice it all sounds so unbelievable, really in the truest sense. But then when I went back and got to do some deep research on it all and got a hold of the 5000 page trial transcript and it is just incredible what actually went down in that thing. It is The Skyjacker’s Tale but there are these complimentary and contrasting tales in there as well but everyone involved in the film and giving testimony was their first hand, no second or third degree recounting and my uncle would be really proud of me (and his) because just look at the cast in this story!
DV: At the end of the day, what is your hope for the film and audiences watching this movie?
JK: Well if you hijack a plane…bring a gun (Laughs)…KIDDING KIDDING (Laughing) But as I always say, I like to make films that don’t present any kind of easy answers, are first and foremost entertaining and engage the audience to think about something by themselves. I have people who have come to me and have seen the film multiple times and tell me that they come away with a different perspective his guilt or innocence, but I really think it’s about the justice system as a whole (if it works or not) and this one guy who took matters into his own hands. Sadly and fascinatingly this isn’t really a historical film at all because there are so many present day issues that resonate loudly through this story.
As a bonus at tonight’s 8:45 PM screening of The Skyjacker’s Tale at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, director Jamie Kastner will be Skyping in with the subject of the film who is still on US Most Wanted List one Ishmael Muslim Ali.