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Victoria Film Festival: BBC’s Theroux skewers Scientology

Times Colonist movie writer Michael D. Reid is covering the Victoria Film Festival, which continues until Feb. 12. Ratings are out of five stars. Go to for updates.
Louis Theroux outside The Church of Scientology building in L.A. VFF

Times Colonist movie writer Michael D. Reid is covering the Victoria Film Festival, which continues until Feb. 12. Ratings are out of five stars. Go to for updates.


What: The Skyjacker’s Tale
Where: Cineplex Odeon
When: Wednesday, 9:45 p.m.
Rating: Two stars


The most intriguing aspect of Jamie Kastner’s half-baked documentary is something it doesn’t substantially address — whether the film’s subject will face extradition to the U.S. now that country has restored diplomatic relations with Cuba.

Ishmael Muslim Ali has been living in Cuba since his headline-grabbing hijacking of an American Airlines flight on New Year’s Eve, 1984.

He used a hidden gun to take over the plane that was carrying him to New York to serve the remainder of eight consecutive life sentences for murders committed in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

He had been convicted of being one of the Fountain Valley Five, who massacred eight rich white people at a St. Croix country club in 1972. Kastner clearly revels in the access to the self-proclaimed revolutionary at his undisclosed Cuban refuge.

He gives the fugitive, now a grandfather in his 60s, ample screen time to explain he was no angel — routinely sticking up tourists in his younger days, for instance — and to maintain his innocence on the murder charges, including claims that he and his co-defendants confessed only after being tortured by local police.

The filmmaker also rounds up an impressive assortment of aging players in this real-life drama, including the pilot, a flight attendant, lawyers, prison guards and a retired white Virgin Islands police officer whose conflicting testimony adds to confusion over Ali’s guilt or innocence.

Loaded with cheesy re-enactments and archival footage that evoke a 1970s vibe, the film plays like a bad episode of Forensic Files.

Indeed, it seems more suited for late-night TV viewing than as film-festival fare.


What: Franca: Chaos & Creation
Where: Vic Theatre
When: Tonight, 6:30 p.m.
Rating: four stars


You needn’t be a fashionista to appreciate Francesco Carrozzini’s valentine to his late mother, Franca Sozzani, who was Vogue Italia’s legendary editor-in-chief from 1988 until her death in 2016.

Clearly having inherited her stylistic flair, he gets things rolling with a playful, at times testy, interview with his mother in the backseat of a moving car that functions as a kind of confessional.

It’s intercut with archival news flashbacks and home-movie footage of Sozzani’s childhood and adolescence; and commentary from fashion designers, a philosopher, filmmakers and others in her orbit, including Baz Luhrmann, Courtney Love, photographer Bruce Weber and Jonathan Newhouse.

Newhouse, Condé Naste International CEO, once threatened to fire her because of potential economic fallout from her controversial photo spreads that reflected global crises and social issues.

The film features scores of the trend-setter’s most provocative highlights, including images of oil-soaked models lying on a beach after the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, photographer Steven Meisel’s shocking images of supermodel Linda Evangelista’s cosmetic surgery, the anti-racism issue featuring only black models, and an eyebrow-raising spread on domestic violence illustrated with photographs of a model wearing a blood-red dress lying on the floor in a pool of blood.

By turns dramatic and lighthearted, this documentary is as captivating as the fiercely independent woman it celebrates.

What: Gulistan, Land of Roses
Where: Capitol 6
When: Wednesday, 9:15 p.m.; Feb. 8, 6:30 p.m.
Rating: four stars


If most of what you’ve learned about Kurdish guerrillas battling Islamic extremists is based on media reports, you owe it to yourself to see Kurdish-Canadian filmmaker Zayne Akyol’s portrait of a group of female soldiers who serve with the PKK, or Kurdistan Workers’ Party, in Iraq and Syria.

When we first observe these women quietly brushing their hair, laughing, making meals and conversing with each other, they seem more like a group of friends enjoying a get-together rather than warriors.

Then come the closeups of the women polishing and loading their guns before embarking on their missions to fight ISIS. Embedded with this all-female brigade in the hills and deserts of Kurdistan, Akyol furnishes her nuanced portrayal of their camaraderie with striking imagery of this beautiful but dangerous landscape. The visuals are offset by impressively articulated philosophy and explanations from the female fighters. Their determination is matched by compassion as they defy gender stereotypes in a patriarchal society.


What: My Scientology Movie
Where: Star Cinema
When: Today, 3:30 p.m.
Rating: four stars


The Church of Scientology was just begging for an amusingly surreal alternative to Alex Gibney’s 2015 documentary Going Clear, and who better than BBC broadcaster and documentarian Louis Theroux to capitalize on its absurdity and frightening dogma.

Stonewalled by church members when he purportedly set out to make a conventional Scientology documentary, the muckraker recruits a former Scientology enforcer and whistleblower, Marty Rathbun, and other defectors to expose the church’s more bizarre practices.

Theroux takes particular delight in skewering the sect’s elusive and intimidating leader, David Miscavige. And as you might expect, neither is Scientology’s poster boy, Tom Cruise, spared.

The film’s most side-splitting sequences are of Theroux doing his faux-innocent shtick, having passive-aggressive encounters with security staffers on the boundaries of the church’s compound and seeing zealots film his crew while he films them.

These showdowns underscore how lightweight and stunt-driven this film is. So does his attempt to make up for lack of access by hiring actors to impersonate the top brass and dramatize some of its more dehumanizing abuse in the Hole, a prison for senior Scientologists who have stepped out of line.

While much of what transpires behind closed doors and beyond at the Church of Scientology is no laughing matter, Theroux makes it so. The result is a film as funny as it is scary.

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