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LAFF ’10 | Director John Kastner Witnesses a Confession in “Life With Murder”

LAFF '10 | Director John Kastner Witnesses a Confession in "Life With Murder"

Chatham, Ontario, 1998. Eighteen-year-old Jennifer Jenkins is brutally shot to death by multiple rifle rounds in her family home. The main suspect: her brother, Mason Jenkins, who fled the scene of the crime. After fabricating a story about what occurred, Jenkins was incarcerated. His parents, facing the loss of both their children, chose to support his claims of innocence, repressing the dark secret of their son’s true intentions.

Concurrently shocking and heartbreaking, John Kastner’s finely crafted mystery slowly reveals the many layers of a family dynamic that becomes its own enigma, drawing from a decade’s worth of coverage, including police interrogation videos, home movies, and incredible interviews with Jenkins, his family, and the case’s investigators. With a skillful eye that eschews sensationalism, Kastner delves beyond the details of the murder to capture the pain of paternal devotion as Jenkins’ parents struggle to hold onto the last shreds of their family. Led by the belief that one’s children are not disposable, the burden of the Jenkins’ forgiveness proves as fearsome as the murder that begot it. [Synopsis provided by LAFF]

Life With Murder
Documentary Competition
(Canada, 2009, 95 mins, DigiBeta – NTSC, HDCAM – NTSC)
Directed By: John Kastner
Producers: John Kastner, Deborah Parks, Silva Basmajian
Cinematographers: John Westheuser, Mark Caswell
Editor: Greg West

[EDITOR’S NOTE: indieWIRE is profiling the Narrative and Documentary Competition filmmakers who are screening their films at the Los Angeles Film Festival]

Director John Kastner on his performing background, and on what prompted him to make “Life With Murder”…

My background is in drama. But since I was a professional actor from the age of 8, I saw from an early age what a lousy way it is to make a living. (My late brother Peter did better than I; he played the lead in Francis Coppola’s first feature, “You’re A Big Boy Now”). So I moved behind the camera, and turned to capturing the drama of real life in narrative-style documentaries. People often say my docs look like movies. “Life With Murder” has been described as a real-life murder mystery with the astonishing twists of a fictional crime thriller. I guess that’s what a frustrated ham does.

When I was 16-year-old actor I played the lead role in a training film for prison guards for the National Film Board of Canada. I spent weeks in a real prison talking with real killers, bank robbers, fraud artists. Intoxicating stuff for a teenage boy. I was hooked. I keep returning to offenders’ stories like an addict. My special interest is the personal relationships of criminals, a subject widely explored in fictional works such as “Crime and Punishment”, “The Godfather” and “The Sopranos”. But you rarely see it in docs. One of my earliest efforts,”The Lifer and The Lady”, won an Emmy for PBS Frontline in the ’80s. I came upon the story of the Jenkins (the family in “Life With Murder”) whose son was convicted of murdering their daughter, purely by accident while filming another doc at the same prison. I became fascinated by them, wondering how on earth a family could reconcile after kin murders kin.

Kastner on a surprising turn of events that occurred while shooting the film, and on the major challenges he faced in bringing “Life With Murder” to the screen…

The film contains a confession to murder; we learned who really killed the sister, Jennifer. Incredibly, the murderer confesses on camera. We never dreamed such a thing would happen when we began filming. But the truth came out in a bits and pieces during production, through a series of shocking revelations. So in structuring the film I tried to re-capture for the audience the unfolding shocks pretty much as they happened to us – and to the parents. They are seen in the film learning for the first time who killed their daughter Jennifer and why, and just what happened that dark night. Suddenly what was supposed to be a story set in the past and recollected in (sort of) tranquility became an unfolding crisis in the present.

The biggest challenges were getting the police videos, which are so remarkable because unlike most videos in this genre which usually focus on the criminal, these show the parents in the 24 hours after the crime starting from just two hours after the murder. They are heartbreaking. You are right there at the parents’ elbows as they find out, step by step, the events of that night. The police didn’t want to release them initially. But the parents wanted people to see them. They had been criticized by some for supporting Mason. They wanted people to see what they went through that night and the videos certainly put you in their shoes. It took almost a year of negotiations with the police to get them — but it was worth it. They transform the film.

Kastner on how audiences have responded to the film…

I can only tell you the response by audiences to the film was remarkable when it was screened at the Hot Docs Festival in Toronto last month The National Film Board says Life With Murder received the best reviews of any film in Canada this year (Google them and see for yourself!) The film is so strong, so thought-provoking it gets under people’s skin in a way that few films do. Many people reported waking up the next morning still swept up in the grip of the powerful emotions generated by the film.

And on what’s next in the pipeline…

I need a break from prison films. I really do. You know — they say a change is as good as a rest. So I’m working on a film about an institution for the criminally insane. Seriously.

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