Director John Kastner discusses Life With Murder, premiering at Hot Docs

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Life With Murder, a documentary film by triple Emmy Award-winning director John Kastner tells a remarkable story about a murder in the family. The film is premiering at the Hot Docs Film Festival, which kicked off yesterday. The subject matter – a brother who is charged with murdering his sister – is a difficult one, and there aren’t many filmmakers who could have treated it in the same way. As such, I was thrilled that John agreed to answer a few questions for me.

Julie Matlin: Films about criminals and their relationships with loved ones has been a focus of yours for a while – what attracts you to this subject matter?

John Kastner: When I was 16,  I was a professional actor and played the lead in an NFB training film for prison guards. So I got to spend 3 weeks in Collins Bay Penitentiary in Kingston, Ontario – much of it hanging around with murderers, bank robbers and other criminals all day long, waiting for the crew to set up the camera and lights. Well, you know, our culture is fascinated with outlaws – look at all the crime movies, TV shows, books, etc. But for a teenage boy to meet these characters in the flesh – wow! Well, I was hooked for life.

Subsequently, my interest broadened into a wider concern for the needs of offenders. I learned that while much media attention is paid to the families of victims of crime, the families of violent offenders are largely neglected. And if you’re an otherwise law-abiding family and you wake up one night with your house surrounded by the flashing lights of police cars, and you discover Dad has been charged with rape, the trauma is just horrific for these families too.  And criminal behaviour often begins in the family, after all. I’m fascinated by the dynamics of the personal relationships of criminals and what effect it has on their criminal behaviour.

JM: What kind of reactions has the film gotten so far?

JK: The reaction has been astonishing. The film is strong, very strong and it is hitting people where they live. It’s that strong. In the last week, the film was the cover story on both NOW magazine and POV magazine. And it keeps getting picked by critics as one of the must-see films of the Hot Docs festival. Thrilling, moving, humbling.

JM: What is the underlying message of this film? What do you want people to take away?

JK: I just love the parents in the film, Brian and Leslie Jenkins. They are people with such character and integrity,  and the pain they have undergone from this double tragedy is just unbelievable, just heartbreaking.  Worse they have been stigmatized by some people back home, as if they haven’t suffered enough. So I wanted to help them – to put people in their shoes, make them share the wrenching ordeal they went through after the murder, and do it so vividly it would almost be like being there with them during those first terrible days.

I hope people will come away from the film feeling less judgmental of them.  As Mason’s aunt Trish put it, speaking of Brian and Leslie: “Don’t you dare judge these people.  Because you have no idea what you would do if you were in their shoes…”

For more information and screening times, check the Hot Docs website.