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Not since the Homolkas has a family faced as disturbing a dilemma as the one John Kastner explores in his riveting Hot Docs entry, Life With Murder
LIFE WITH MURDER (John Kastner, Canada). 93 minutes. Screening at Hot Docs May 1, 9:45 pm, Isabel Bader May 9, 3:45 pm, Bloor. hotdocs.ca. Rating: NNNNN
Three-time Emmy-winning filmmaker John Kastner is in his car when he speaks to me for the first time.
“I’m going to see my bad boy,” he says cheerily.
It’s a loaded sentence. The bad boy in question is Mason Jenkins, convicted killer of his own sister and the centrepiece of Kastner’s searing documentary Life With Murder.
So why does “bad boy” sound like an endearment. And “my?” Who’d want to claim this guy?
Kastner does. He adores difficult subjects, and his passion for criminology has fuelled a series of award-winning documentaries, including Monster In The Family, about Martin Ferrier, a small-time criminal betrayed by his mother.
Life With Murder goes in the opposite direction, tracking a situation reminiscent of Karla Homolka’s family trauma.
It’s a parent’s worst nightmare – no, a parent’s two worst nightmares. The death of a child is plainly the most awful, but there’s something truly terrible, too, about having to face the fact that your own child may have committed a grotesque crime.
Watch how Mason’s parents have coped. While a teenager, he was convicted of the murder of his sister Jennifer. He claimed, against all the evidence, that he was innocent.
His mother and father have stood by him through the 11 years of lost appeals, and to this day give him unfailing support.
Using police videos of the interrogation and subsequent interviews with Mason, his parents and the detective assigned to the case, Kastner constructs a stunning narrative that unfolds like a murder mystery. He even gets a confession from the actual killer.
There are twists and turns in the story that can’t be revealed. Trust me that it turns into a mind-blowing exploration of family dynamics.
“Murder in the family is the focus of some of the greatest works of world literature,” Kastner says in his Annex living room.
“Almost every Greek drama has it every second Shakespeare play is about royals murdering their own for advantage The Brothers Karamazov is about patricide the Bible has Cain and Abel. It is so primal. And if it’s good enough for Dostoevsky, it’s good enough for me.”
Kastner is a genius with narrative, giving us clues at just the right time, letting all the horror sink in. His characters are so strong, you’d think they were written as fiction. Kastner credits his early career as an actor for the way he gets under his subjects’ skin.
“I was a professional actor from the time I was eight years old,” he explains. “What you do is what Stanislavski, the great acting teacher, called ‘the magic if’: what if I were this person? What if I lived through this experience? I’d want to know everything about it. You have to do all the emotional homework, and that guides my whole approach to documentary filmmaking.”
Though Mason himself is fascinating, it’s his parents’ story that makes for the big gut wrench. Leslie and Brian Jenkins talk openly about their convictions, their doubts and the price they’ve paid for standing behind their son.
“You don’t throw a kid away,” says Leslie in one of the film’s most powerful moments.
She herself was responsible for securing the key archival element of the film: the police videos of the interrogations of Mason and his parents.
She’d needed some convincing at first.
“I told her, ‘You’ve been stigmatized, you’ve had people shun you and cut you,'” Kastner recalls. “‘I don’t think people who see this material could do anything but feel for you. They might disagree with your choice regarding Mason, but no one could be hostile.'”
At first, police resisted handing the tapes over, fearing emotional harm to the elder Jenkinses and a potential lawsuit. Leslie personally requested access to the videos five times, and was refused. She finally said they were crucial to their healing and that it was Brian’s and her call to make.
Shot from the ceiling, the tapes are riveting documents. For one thing, they feature highly skilled police investigator George Vieira, who performs as if he’s on a CSI set.
“George was a gift,” Kastner agrees. “We could have had a cop who was a lunk. We could have had a great cop who was lousy on film. We got a great cop who looked like we had actually cast him.”
Only in these videos do you see Brian’s mammoth meltdown. Only via these images do you discover that Leslie actually entertained the idea that her son is a killer.
Kastner says police videos usually show interrogations of the perpetrator only.
“These are unusual,” he says, “because the interrogations are with the family members and they start within two hours of their having found Jennifer. You are at their elbow as these terrible events unfold. You learn as they learn that their son is the chief suspect.”
In fact, the entire film unreels as Kastner himself experienced the events, which makes it all the more gripping. He accepted Mason’s original story that he’d been kidnapped and hadn’t been in the house during the murder. Then, when he allows that he had been in the house, the narrative begins to shift and finally spill out to its shattering conclusion.
Kastner first met the family while making Monster In The Family and shooting at Warkworth prison.
His subject, Martin Ferrier, whose mother would not stop demonizing him, moaned to Kastner, “My mother never visits me. There’s a guy in here who killed his own sister and his parents are here all the time.”
Kastner, who was interested in the subject of reconciliation, couldn’t resist. But getting everybody on board wasn’t easy. It was 2005, fully eight years after the murder, and no one was talking. The parents had never talked about the crime and were uneasy. They’d never talked to Mason about the crime or to anyone else in their family.
And Mason wasn’t going to get the same benefits that Martin Ferrier did from being the subject of a major documentary.
“I had to say to Mason, ‘You’re not going to get the same reaction as Martin. He got thousands of emails from women who wanted to give him a hug. People would cross the road to shake his hand. Yours is a very serious crime, and you’re not going to get that kind of response. You have to make the film for another reason.'”
The reason became his parents.
Kastner’s own fascination with criminality goes back to his teens, when he starred in an NFB training film for prison guards, designed to help them steer prisoners away from prison cliques.
“What do you do on a movie set? You wait, you talk to people. All the prisoners on set are rapists, murderers, all different kinds of criminals. When you meet someone who’s done a horrific crime, it’s like the banality of evil. They’re the most normal-seeming people – great sense of humour, often intelligent. You expect to see movie caricatures of monsters, and they’re not. I was immediately hooked by the disconnect.”
Eventually, he began making documentaries, some focusing on crime, others on health. His signature is the conversation with his subjects. You won’t see him and his cameras stalking his stars. Vérité, he says, is fundamentally problematic. Dialogue can be a superficial thing, often hiding people’s basic subtexts and motivations.
“Vérité is a wonderful tool, but I don’t trust it,” he says. “It’s fabulous at its best, but it may not uncover the truth. I spent two years talking to a character again and again to burrow deeper and peel back the layers.
“I’m not Mr. Actuality. I’m Mr. Interview.”
Kastner still visits Mason’s parents often. As for his “bad boy,” no way he’s just disposing of Mason like a used tissue.
“He revealed himself to me,” says Kastner with a strange passion. “He shared something with me uniquely, so there’s a bond.”
“We still say outrageous things to each other behind closed doors.”
On Kastner’s first experience visiting a prison
On others’ going in to a prison, shooting for Kastner for the first time