Posted: 05/03/2009


Tribeca 2009: Striking Gold with Shadow Billionaire

by Annie Vinton

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As I was putting together my schedule for screenings and Round Table interviews at the Tribeca Film Festival, based on one of the many well written descriptions in the flim guide, I was immediately drawn to Shadow Billionaire. Not only did I have the good fortune of attending the sold out screening, I was able to meet with filmmakers Alexis Manya Spraic and Sasha Alpert, and the story behind the filmmaking is as interesting to me as the documentary.

For now, My Take on Shadow Billionaire and following soon, an exclusive with filmmakers Spraic and Alpert.

Shadow Billionaire

My Take: My Top Take for the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival
Director: Alexis Manya Spraic
Producer: Sasha Alpert

In 1995, DHL founder Larry Hillblom crashed his WWII seaplane in the South Pacific and although his co-passenger and pilot’s bodies were discovered, his never surfaced. At the time of his death, Hillblom’s home was in Saipan, an island 115 miles north of Guam, and he was living what most perceived to be a quiet and low-risk life, except for his penchant for flying refurbished airplanes. What followed after his death was nothing short of what all great mysteries are made of and to quote a writer covering the story at the time it had all the right elements - “The three C’s – Cash, Crime and Cu—s.”

For someone so meticulous in life when it came to his business dealings and his extreme health and germaphobic-type practices, it was surprising that his will wasn’t more detailed and it became very questionable as to why it was written with extreme vagueness as it related to possible heirs and inheritance (the Cash.) With no identified heirs when he died, most of his almost billion dollar fortune was left to medical research (this was as response to the staff that nursed him back to health after a previous plane crash left him with severe head and facial injuries.)

After his death, a small town lawyer from Guam, David Lujan, was hired by a woman insisting Hillblom fathered her son and with this, a Pandora’s box was opened as other women were identified or came out of the woodworks from different parts of the world making the same claim (the Cu—s.) As Lujan dug deeper for the truth, he uncovered some shady business dealings and shocking revelations of Hillblom’s life (the Crime) thrusting him into a “David and Goliath” type battle against corporate giants for a slice of the Hillblom pie.

At the core of any successful documentary, is the ability of the filmmakers to identify a colorful and intelligent cast of characters to tell the story and then edit accordingly to create intrigue, holding the audience’s attention span. In her feature debut, Director Alexis Manic Spraic teamed up with seasoned producer Sasha Alpert and they accomplished just this. Together they found the perfect mix of Hillblom’s friends, colleagues, journalists and lawyers in the South Pacific to unravel this mystery with some surprising twists that left me at times with my mouth wide open in disbelief and others laughing at the straightforward talk and wit of lead character Lujan. My favorite line of his with a synopsis on the case: “It’s not that I was smart, it was that they were dumb.”

Most probaly thought, and happily so, this story was long forgotten. Accoaldes are due to Spraic and Alpert for their ability to gain trust among the locals in Saipan and within the Hillblom circles. In many ways these women are like Lujan, provng that they too can play with the big boys.

Let’s hope this one struck gold at Tribeca and finds its way to a screen near you soon.

Annie Vinton Annie Vinton is a freelance writer and film critic living in NYC. You can read more about her and her writing at or on Facebook.

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