Monday, June 26, 2017

THE SKYJACKER'S TALE: Jamie Kastner's fascinating update on a 1970s robbery/ massacre and a 1980s airplane hi-jacking

Giving you a plethora of opinions -- including that of the skyjacker himself (who now resides in Cuba) -- about an event that happened in the U.S. Virgin Islands decades ago and that resulted in lengthy prison sentences and finally the hijacking of an airplane during the following decade, THE SKYJACKER'S TALE is a crackerjack story that many of us may not recall, since that initial event happened "overseas," as it were, at one of those Caribbean Island paradises-for-the-wealthy-at-the-expense-of-the-locals.

Filmmaker Jamie Kastner, shown at right, does something that almost seems unusual in these days of take-your-side-and damn-well-stay-there politics and movie-making: He doesn't unduly push us to accept either the view of the skyjacker (Ishmael Labeet, aka Ismael Muslim Ali) or those of his antagonists, the police, politicians (one of whom is shown below) and investigators who rounded up the suspects and made damn sure they were found guilty by and via the powers-that-were back in the day.

The documentary is narrated for the most past by Mr. Labeet/Ali from his home in Cuba, the country to which he made certain that the hijacked plane was routed and where he has lived ever since 1982. (One of the number of small surprises that keep this film so interesting has to do with exactly where Labeet spent the first of his first years in Cuba, and how he felt about all this.)

Although the skyjacking itself made big news in the USA, it was the direct result of that Virgin Island robbery and murder of eight people a decade earlier that led to Labeet's actions on the plane. Once we learn some of the history of the "U.S." Virgin Islands (purchased from Denmark back in 1916), and of the robbery/massacre itself, so many questions arise about the procedures -- legal and otherwise -- used to first identify the perpetrators, obtain their confessions, and then take them to trial and sentencing that the documentary begins to seem like a kind of "prequel," Virgin Islands-style, to the later tale of The Central Park Five.

Sure, it's possible that Labeet (shown above, below and at bottom) and his pals were indeed the killers. But it is just as possible that they were not. and no effort seems to have been made, at any point, to find any other suspects. This, together with the lack of any real evidence of guilt provided by the authorities, is suspicious, to say the least. The movie also comes close to proving that the "confessions" were tortured out of the guys -- which would make them illegal in any normal U.S. court of law, which this Virgin Islands, with its lynch mob mentality, clearly was not. (The deep south, along with Black Lives Matter, will come to mind more than once during these "festivities.") The media, together with the help of the Islands' white overseers, pushed the massacre as a race issue (even though one of the eight killed was black), starting a typical wave of fear on the Islands -- oh, my god, we can't have anything draining our tourism -- so these men were caught/tried/sentenced/imprisoned in pretty much record time.

Listening to the testimony of so many of the "investigators," then and now, does not make one sense that seeking real justice was on anyone's mind. (One particular cop is clearly lying, as we learn by film's end.) On the other hand, Labeet himself does not push very hard to gain our sympathy. He, along with the filmmaker, tells his story quietly and compellingly but with no special pleading. He doesn't appear to care much whether we believe him or not. We also hear from Labeet's defense attorneys (that's Margaret Ratner Kunstler, below, the wife of another of his defense attorneys, the late William Kunstler) and these people seem quite a bit more reliable than does the prosecution.

Kastner, who earlier gave us that enjoyable doc, The Secret Disco Revolution, uses staged re-enactments of both the robbery/massacre and the airplane hijacking, and his capable handling of storytelling and actors would indicate that he might do well in the narrative mode, too. Meanwhile, we have this oddly fascinating movie to contend with. Although it is scheduled to open in our own Virgin Islands at the end of August, I can't imagine that it will be warmly embraced there -- at least not by the usual suspects. (You can read an early review from a Virgin Island newspaper here. By the way, the review gives away a spoiler that the filmmaker quite succulently saves for the very end.)

Hitting theaters via Strand Releasing and running just 76 minutes, The Skyjkacker's Tale arrives Friday, June 30, in New York City at the Village East Cinema; in New Orleans at the Zeitgeist Arts Center on July 7; and in the Los Angeles area at Laemmle's Monica Film Center on July 14. To see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters, click here, and then click on Screenings on the task bar halfway-or-more down-screen.

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