Ishmael Muslim Ali in "The Skyjacker's Tale"

Known for tackling difficult subjects with a light touch, Jamie Kastner usually knows his movies are working by hearing laughter from the crowd, so it was a different sensation when you could hear a pin drop during the premiere of his latest, “The Skyjacker’s Tale” at the Toronto Film Festival.

“There are laughs in this film, but they are fewer and farther between and more towards the end,” Kastner said the morning following the film’s premiere in his hometown. “So at first, I thought, Where is that thing I’m waiting to hear? Then I realized this incredible silence and engagement is what I want to be hearing in this film. It was thrilling.”

Indeed, it’s hard to laugh when you’re busy picking your jaw up off the floor as many did at the packed Bloor Hot Docs Theater, hanging onto every word of the crazy story of Ishmael Muslim Ali, once known as Ishmael Labeet, a New York criminal radicalized by his time spent in the U.S. military in Vietnam to avoid a prison stretch and becoming involved in the Black Panthers once back at home. Seeking a new life in the Virgin Islands, he stood out in the refuge for wealthy white ex-pats and when a gruesome murder of eight people on the Fountain Valley Golf Course in St. Croix took place in 1972, Ali was apprehended and tried, yet never jailed since he used the opportunity of a transfer between New York and St. Croix to hijack the plane and reroute to Cuba where he’s spent the past 32 years. (His co-defendants have been incarcerated since.)

Since Kastner thrusts audiences directly into the action by putting them on the fateful flight at the start of “The Skyjacker’s Tale,” there’s no doubt whether Ali got away with it – he sits for an extensive interview explaining exactly how he escaped authorities and grew disillusioned with America. But instead, the film asks whether justice might’ve been inadvertently served since many questions are raised around Ali’s arrest and subsequent trial where legendary civil rights attorney William Kunstler was compelled to help with his defense, with the case exposing the racial inequality that existed throughout the community. With unemotional, blunt recollections of his life, Ali comes across as someone with a truly different way of looking at the world and as Kastner so provocatively poses with the film, does he actually see it clearer than the rest of us do, despite obviously having a murky moral compass?

However, that’s a question that will likely have to wait to be fully considered until after leaving the theater since Kastner is so busy delivering an entertaining yarn, though the director did have the time after the film’s rousing premiere to answer a few of ours about how he stumbled into such an incredible subject, the responsibility of making a film about true crime, and the attraction of making documentaries in the first place.

Ishmael Muslim Ali in "The Skyjacker's Tale"How did this come about?

My last film here was “Secret Disco Revolution” in 2012, which went quite well, but doing these one-off docs are an uphill battle and I looked at the market at the time and thought what are the things that are really breaking through. “Man on Wire” and “Searching for Sugar Man” had just won Oscars around then and I thought, where the hell do people find these stories that have an incredibly charismatic lead character doing something unbelievable. My car mechanic was the answer. [laughs]

I drive a really stupid, 30-year-old car, so you have to forge a rapport with a mechanic. And this guy happened to be a politically-minded intellectual. Initially, I was trying to sell out and do a reality series about him. That didn’t work. Instead, he comes back and says, “You do documentaries, don’t you?” I’ve got a buddy who goes down to Cuba regularly and he met this guy in a bar who hijacked an airplane. We looked him up in the car mechanic’s shop — Ishmael LaBeet, as he was known – and we began to get the broad strokes of this complex and confounding story. He hijacked the plane – why did he hijack the plane? There’s this bizarre sounding murder on a golf course, yet he’s spoken about in some corners as a black revolutionary. I knew there was an incredible story there — it’s an American story with global resonance, it has like a Hollywood third act and has a trove of stock footage attached. Within three weeks of that conversation, I was on a plane to Cuba and that’s how it started.

When you landed in Cuba, was Ishmael immediately receptive to this?

Oh no. He was motivated to tell this story, I later gathered, by wanting to help the three guys who are still rotting away in jail 43 years on. He’s extremely intelligent and he knows there’s value to this story and this is why he’s chosen to share it. But I went through a vetting process that was infinitely more cloak and dagger than anything I’ve done before. Getting to Gloria Gaynor for “Disco” wasn’t easy, either, but [for this], I took a very bumpy cab ride across the country where I’m reading this one book about the [murder] trial from 20 years ago, figuring I’m going to meet a mass murderer and he has the cab meet me on the outskirts of the city where he’s living. I can’t say where that is. And he gets in the cab with me — he’s a tall, imposing guy — and we go to the center of town and sit on benches and have a beer and chatted. I made it into his trust in stages, but on that first trip, I would say he sussed me out and [after] he decided to share the story with me.

You actually start the film right in the middle of things with the hijacking. Was it a challenge to figure out the structure?

Figuring out what to prioritize and how to do that in a way that would engage the audience viscerally and intellectually and take them on a ride emotionally and make them question the issues at the core of this, which is the notion of justice [was the goal]. But it was a considerable challenge to execute it. This is structured as a thriller, so [there’s a] fiction movie-type approach to structuring, and some of the other films I’ve made have been plotless, frankly. I did a film called “Recessionize,” [and another] called “Kike Like Me” about identity, and these were topics into which I had to find a way to carve a narrative out of raw rock face. But this was the exact opposite.

It was all dramatic and all story, so the challenge was how to weave it all together – the thriller [aspects] and make the audience feel like the jury in a trial. And then what are the odds that once I’m embedded there in Cuba under the wire working on this, that seismic geopolitical shifts would conveniently happen? The 60-year embargo would start to crumble with Obama’s announcement – I mean, who could’ve predicted that? It was dumb luck for the film. So suddenly what was an interesting historical story with some resonance already became front page news. Almost any one of these narrative lines was strong enough to be a movie in and of itself, so watching it again the other night at the premiere, I was like, “Wow, we really packed it in.”

Since there are reenactments in the film, do you basically complete the documentary portion of this first and then use the information you’ve accrued to inform them?

That’s how we did it and because dramatic shooting is extremely expensive, to do it as efficiently as possible, you need to know exactly what holes you want to fill. I haven’t always been a huge fan of recreations, but when I was theorizing about the dream components of a documentary that could break through before this all started, the only thing I was missing that “Searching for Sugar Man” and “Man on Wire” had was an incredible treasure trove of stock footage. [Obviously, there are no] home movies of Ali hijacking the plane, so there are limited ways to deal with that.

The curse of the documentary is the talking head, and in “Secret Disco Revolution,” which was obviously a more playful film, I created these skits with these three characters who embodied the key tenets of the main academics’ theories about disco – that it was sexist, racist and homophobic and I created this little storyline within that thing about them masterminding the Disco revolution. I wrote and directed plays years ago, so I’m comfortable with actors. I’m comfortable with drama and I certainly would like to do more stuff in that direction with film as well, so we took [“The Skyjacker’s Tale”] to a Fine Cut stage and we temped in found footage, stuff from other movies, stuff from the internet [because] you don’t know if it’s going to work, and then we scripted and shot it pretty efficiently over three days of recreation shoots.

If you originally were involved in theater, what was the draw of documentaries?

My background was in [both] theater and journalism and I was a music critic for a Toronto paper when I was 19, so I got an early, Cameron Crowe-lite type of education. It’s a wonderful way of experiencing all sorts of worlds and I loved theater, but the career prospects just seemed too abysmal. My family here in Toronto is all in the media and I was always interested in the camera. My mother [Susan Kastner] was a journalist for the Toronto Star, my aunt was an entertainment reporter on TV and my uncle [John Kastner] is a multi-Emmy winning documentary maker, so I had at least contactsto get in the door. But nepotism can only go so far, unfortunately. [laughs] But I found my way into magazine shows, which was great training – you know, do a five-minute piece, go out and shoot it, cut it, see what your mistakes were and repeat. I went from doing five to 10-minute pieces for CBC, TVO and Much Music here to eventually apprenticing with my uncle on some CBC docs and eventually taking the plunge and started doing my own.

Knowing your previous films, was dealing with the subject of a crime something new?

This was a drastic departure from anything I’ve ever done before and certainly, I wouldn’t say antisemitism or the recession are lightweight [subjects], but they were more playful films in approach and indeed, this was a more classic documentary style in which I knew that the matters at hand were extremely grave. You have a murderer of eight people, a hijacking, which is the most terrifying thing in a group of people’s lives, and this incredible lead character who lived through the repercussions of all of this, so it was a huge responsibility to take this on.

On one hand, I tiptoed up to it thinking this feels more like my uncle’s turf, but on the other, I immediately recognized I was absolutely ready to make this film and confront all the many sensitivities and challenges that arose, of which there were an infinite number on all sides. Shooting in Cuba and trying to unearth the truth about accusations about crimes committed by police and FBI and find witnesses who could speak firsthand to the most notorious crime on a Carribean island as a white guy from Toronto and entering the maze of vested interests in all of these things was fascinating, but it was challenging. I hired the best researchers, as I always do, and I’m thrilled with what we turned out.

Without giving too much away, I didn’t know how we would get the cops on the Virgin Islands to talk honestly about this, let alone on camera. [One of the crucial ones] hasn’t seen the film yet, and I only recently told him about what I got because once he entrusted me with it and gave the original interview, I wasn’t reporting back to him. And I didn’t know where I stood on it as I discovered all these new pieces of information. The audience is going through what I went through to. You think you see it one way. Then you get a new piece of information and you’re looking at it a completely different way and how does that affect how you thought about the first piece of information? It’s an incredible story and I wanted to replicate that kind of confoundment and fascination I experienced at every step.

“The Skyjacker’s Tale” does not yet have U.S. distribution.