A killer story

Hot Docs film Life With Murder documents the life of a small-town Ontario man who murdered his 18-year-old sister, and the family that continues to stand by him. Dana Lacey chats with three-time Emmy-winning filmmaker John Kastner in his Toronto home about becoming the Dostoyevsky of documentary.
John Kastner by Dana Lacey
Documentary filmmaker John Kastner in his Toronto home. Photo by Dana Lacey

DL: Do you remember reading about the
murder when it happened?

No, it got no national publicity
at all. I never heard the story. It’s a Toronto-centric media. It’s a
lesson for journalists: there are some remarkable tales out there that
never surface nationally. The murder did get a lot of coverage from the
London Free Press and Windsor papers, and other local media in that
area. It was a big fat story, and we were amazed when we looked into it
that we couldn’t find a single national story on this rather amazing

What finally sparked your interest to make Life with Murder?

I became interested in the notion of violent offenders reconciling with their families. In a way, it’s similar to the story of Karla Holmolka’s relationship with her parents after she was charged. WMason Jenkinse all kind of wondered: how could they talk to her?

Then I heard rumours that Mason was starting to talk. In fact, the very first conversation I had with [Mason’s mother] Leslie, she says, “are you sure there’s a story here?” I’ve had such fun repeating this line to her as we peel back the layers to this story—it’s something out of a gothic novel. . . but I don’t want to give away too much of the ending.

Mason was 20 when he was convicted: he’s now 32, and this is the first time the Jenkins had ever spoken about the murder to anyone. How did you get them to agree to making the film?

In my dealings with them from the get go, they said, “Ask us anything you like. Don’t be afraid. Go ahead.” Well it proved to be easier said than done. They were incredibly armoured. No one in the family ever talked about the murder to each other. Except maybe Brian and Leslie talking to each other privately. They had never talked to Mason about the murder. They had never talked to their closest relatives about the murder. There was just this silence consensus in the family –this is what Brian and Leslie are going to do and we’re going to support them and we’re not going to ask any questions. Only by now it’s over a decade later. Nobody had had a single conversation with Mason about the murder.  Partly it was for legal reasons in the beginning, because they were witnesses, and they were not allowed to talk to him about it. But at a certain point they could have. And I came to believe that the Jenkins didn’t want to know any more than they already knew. They parked it in a drawer. It was their way of getting through the day. There’s this marvelous speech at the end of the film that Brian’s sister makes, saying “don’t you dare judge these people. You have no idea what you would do.” The film is an exploration into that complex psychological situation of a family venturing into territory that most of us will never see in our lives. It’s almost like trying to see explain to you what life is like on the planet Venus.

How did you first hear about Mason

JK: I knew him because we actually had used him
as a decoy in Monster in the
(MITF), a film I did about Martin Ferrier [who was serving
time in  the same prison].  Ferrier was extremely nervous about drawing
heat to himself within the inmate population. So he lined up a few of
his friends, including Mason Jenkins, to pretend to be interviewed as
part of a “Life in Unit 5” story—I don’t even think the cameras were
on—while we were quietly shooting Ferrier in his cell. At that point,
Mason’s story was nowhere near as interesting. That place had a lot of
very heavy duty offenders: it’s the largest prison in Canada. His was
just one of many stories, and I paid no particular attention.

As a journalist filmmaker, how do you make a major film when nobody wants to talk to you or talk about it?

That was an interesting challenge. It was like peeling back the layers of an onion. I think that filmmakers—particularly journalist filmmakers, which I am—have different approaches. There are a lot of people who love actuality and cinema verities. [The recent Toronto entertainment weekly NOW Magazine cover story about the documentary] quotes me as saying “I’m not Mr. Actuality, I’m Mr. Interview.” Which is true. My model, my favourite novelist, is Dostoyevsky. I read Crime and Punishment when I was 18, and it had a huge influence on me. I’ve never seen anybody dig as deeply into character, especially the character of troubled souls, as Dostoyevsky. I thought, my god, I’d love to be the Dostoyevsky of documentary. In a way that’s my goal has been that exactly—to dig as deep as I can into the characters of the people I’m dealing with. My fascination is character, story, and structure.

There’s this really awkward scene where Leslie and Mason are both at the kitchen table.  She looks at him and says “I don’t really know what happened that night.” And he’s looking at her sideways, almost like they’re sharing in this joke. I thought—this is how they live through it. They normalize it.

What you’re seeing is the first time he’s ever talked about the events of that night. Much of the revelations that came forth, they found out through seeing the film after it was completed. It was not something we ever dreamed would happen when we started the film. The film became therapeutic to them. And it became Mason’s way of finally talking to his parents [about the murder].

You created a neutral space for them to talk about it. You were very much out of the picture the whole time.

Yes, it was very deliberate. This is the first film I’ve done without any narration. I did all the interviews, but I cut myself out as much as possible, which is what I normally do. I’m ex Fifth-estater. There used to be so many items and only so many hosts. So the majority of the time the producer would do the interviews, cut himself out, pop in the host for the standups and at least one interview. As Dan Rather said, “they always credit me with writing the piece, but I have about as much to do with writing 60 Minutes items as King James had to do with writing of the King James Bible.” I don’t think that’s true today, I think the hosts are involved far more deeply than they were in my day. But it was good training in keeping myself out of the story.

What were you hoping to achieve with the film?
There’s been a great deal of media attention to the families of victims of crime, but very little to the families of violent offenders. It’s a huge issue. For one, the numbers: in Canada there is around 350,000 people in the criminal justice system, from incarceration to parole and probation. That’s a lot of families, and a lot of neglect. It’s also important because criminal behavior is often rooted in the family, and also ends in the family or at least with the support of a good relationship. And yet there’s almost nothing out there about this subject. I seem to be one of the only people very interested in it. There’s a lot of stuff about victims, and of course the Jenkins are both. But what about families like the Jenkins or Holmolkas who are otherwise law-abiding, respectable families, who wake up one day and suddenly their house is surrounded by police cars and flashing lights and somebody saying “Come out with your hands up.” The shock to those families is huge, but there’s very little out there to help those people. This film is partly a way of drawing attention to the issue.

What mistakes do the media make when covering crimes like this? 

The story of Martin Ferrier is the best example. It’s easy to demonize an offender in a way that’s counterproductive. All you need is a photograph of a perp walk and some variation on the headline “The Monster is Loose.” People can be made to look much more sinister in a single shot selected for the front page than in a documentary that gives time to see them as human beings and get to know them. There’s a great danger of superficiality. And deliberately so—editors want a juicy-looking first page.

Well take this week’s NOW Magazine cover: the headline is “Natural Born Killer” in huge letters over an extreme closeup, dark photo of Mason, with the smaller dek that says “his parents don’t believe that he’s a…”  What do you think of him being depicted in that way?

Now MagazineIt’s a very clever setup.  It’s an amazing photograph of him. You can interpret it in different ways. The headline could have said “new candidate for mayor” and you would have looked at the same photograph differently. There are certainly more sinister shots they could have chosen. But they didn’t. I think this was a very understated photograph on the one hand. I’ve had this conversation with the parents about the headline, and it’s hard. Even the inside headline is pretty bold: “Murderer in the Family”, all in red ink. When you read it, it’s actually a fairly sophisticated and subtle analysis of the story. But you read it because of that headline. When you get the bum on the couch and see the film, you can understand what we’re trying to do in a more meaningful way. It’s a struggle we go through with the media: it’s no use making a film if people won’t watch it.

Did the police ever ask to see your footage?

Yea, everybody asks. But you can’t just show it to everybody. It’s a dangerous thing.

How did you get the police videos?

It would have been a completely different film. It took nine months to get the Chatham-Kent police to release them. They were extremely concerned about the effect it would have on the Jenkins, who had to sign numerous releases. The police could not believe that the Jenkins wouldn’t watch these things without going to pieces, and the police might be blamed for it. But in the end, we got them, and they completely changed the film.

What were Brian and Leslie’s reaction
to the film?

We discussed for ages in advance how we were
going to show them the film. Some of the police videos and the 9/11
call are just so searing. It was this terrible dilemma: they had to see
it. I knew they had to see it. You’re not supposed to show these things
to the subject. There are legal reasons why. Any network or news
department has a policy against this—certainly the CBC does—and for good
reason; if the subject gets upset, they can apply for an injunction. It
usually fails, but there are a lot of headaches. But in a case like
this, these people had been through so much pain, and had played such a
role…there would be no film without Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins. They were
instrumental in keeping Mason onboard, and in getting the permissions
for the police video. They played such a role and they so exposed
themselves. But how do you drag people through that horrible evening
again? So we did it incrementally over 3 weekends. The first time I
showed them just some of the material: the first 20 minutes and the last
20 minutes. When it came to the most excruciating material of the 9/11
call and a few of those videos where Brian is howling, they just rip
your heart out…. When it came to those scenes I would push the mute
button. We showed them in milimetres. I would press pause often and ask
them if they were okay. The second week I gave them the transcript of
some of the revelations of what had happened, so they could absorb it.
And the third week, I showed them the rest of the film. They were very
pleased with it. Brian did say it was hard for him to watch, but he was
glad that he did. Leslie, who is a very understated person, turned to me
with such relief on her face and said “You’ve been doing some work,
haven’t you?”

Where you worried
about their reaction?

I was sweating bullets. Partly
because, and this will seem amazing to a lot of people, but they still
worry about Mason. They worried about Mason’s reaction. When you make a
long documentary like this, you’re spending a year or two years with
people. You can’t bullshit them. You got to be so straight with them,
you’re not popping in and out for a news quickie where you can use some
of the normal journalistic subterfuges, which doesn’t mean lying, just
leaving stuff out. You know that over the course of the year every doubt
is going to be raised in their minds. I learned this very early on when
I started doing prison films. I was warned: don’t bullshit. Don’t say a
different thing to the inmates than what you’re saying to staff,
because people talk. They trade information in prison. It was hard at
first being completely unvarnishedly honest. Before I let him agree to
the project, I told Mason, this is like a marriage, I want to dig deep.
I’m going to expect you to be candid about your offense, which will be
hard for you to do. I warned him that there may be nothing in this for
him, there will be no advantage. But there will be advantage for his
parents: it’s their story. I think they are people who have been
isolated and cut in their community. I told him I would try to create
empathy for them. Anyone who watches those police videos—even if they
disagree with their decision to stick with Mason, you can’t hate those

When you set out to make this film, you didn’t know half of what you would discover during filming. What would have happened if you hadn’t heard the new revelations?

It’s true, it’s a risky business, although it’s not entirely risky: I try to pick stories which if it goes this way or goes that, you’ve a least good a really good story. Sometimes you can get an extraordinary story. This is an example of when you take that leap into the darkness, and something you never dreamed of as a journalist or filmmaker, occurs beyond your wildest dreams, that affects everything in the film, that affects all the characters.

The Canadian Journalism Foundation is pleased to co-present LIFE WITH MURDER, directed by award-winning documentary filmmaker John Kastner, at this year’s Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto.  Click here for more info and to purchase tickets.

Sat. May 1, 9:45 p.m. at Isabel Bader Theatre, 93 Charles Street West
Sun. May 9, 3:45 p.m. at Bloor Cinema, 506 Bloor Street West