Interview: John Kastner

NCR Not Criminally Responsible - Hot Docs 2013

Although he’s won numerous awards, including several Emmys, for his work over the past several decades for his work in trying o break down social stigmas through documentary filmmaking, John Kastner hasn’t had as big of a response to one of his films as he has had with NCR: Not Criminally Responsible (debuting CBC Doc Zone Thursday, October 17th at 9:00pm). The director behind The Lifer and The Lady and Life With Murder, has seen a groundswell of support for his latest effort, and the effects are being heard even in parliament.

John Kastner - F2“Just last night (at a function) I ran into Laureen Harper,” he said during a phone call late last week. “She said she was aware of the movie and she said she wanted to see it, and I gave her a copy of the film. I can’t think of another point in my career where something like that happened or ever would have happened.”

With mental health destigmitization front and centre in social culture, the notion of rehabilitation for people branded NCR by the courts – meaning they are not of sound enough mind to stand trial or comprehend the charges being brought against them – has become as hot button an issue as ever. In his film, Kastner documents the all around tragic story of Sean Clifton, the accused, and Julie Bouvier, the victim. In 1999 in Cornwall, Ontario outside of a Wal-Mart, Clifton heard voices in his head related to his paranoid schizophrenia  telling him to go out and stab the prettiest girl he could, find. Tragically it was Bouvier, who doesn’t appear on camera in the documentary, afraid for her safety. Her parents appear openly and disdainful towards the notion that Clifton – who has a restraining order stating he can come within hundreds of kilometres of Cornwall ever again as a result of his release – could ever be released after a decade in the hospital and not be charged.

Then, when the film debuted at Hot Docs earlier in the year, something had changed. Julie came out on stage at the film’s premiere to openly forgive Sean for what happened between them. Not long after, Julie’s parents did, as well.

“Well, the short version is that they saw the movie.” Kastner said. “Psychiatrists in particular have been asking me how that even happened, because as you see in the film there is a lot of anger there. To get Sean to open up on camera was difficult. They don’t call it paranoia for nothing. But with Julie, she was still clearly terrified and her parent incredibly angry and not wanting to understand.”

Kastner followed Sean, released under supervision of a court appointed liaison and living with a fellow former patient, as he attempts to put his life back together again. Concurrently, he spoke with Julie. The filmmaker not only shows both sides of a thorny issue, but also poignantly and skilfully displace a wealth of empathy for both parties.

“You can’t have empathy for one side of the story and not for the other.” Kastner said. “ You can see with Sean that he is clearly sick, and we see him largely when he’s better. You can still see him going through these OCD rituals like moving a chair back and forth and in and out of position over and over again, and you have to picture what it’s like not only having lived with that your whole life, but how for a decade of that, those actions are branded to that of someone people would readily brand as a killer. And with Julie, I don’t think there’s any other way of understanding her situation because it’s a very obvious, deep, and more imminently relatable fear.”

A lot of the empathy on display comes from a kind of unspoken shame that’s visible on Clifon’s face throughout, the kind of almost childlike look of someone who will be unable to forget that they have done something deeply wrong.

“I’d say that’s a fairly astute observation. There’s definitely that shame, and I know that Sean was still hesitant because of the stigma attached to his situation. But the support he’s been getting has been great. I mean, there are always people who are going to just insist on a more cut, dry, and brutal sense of justice, and I think Sean has only really heard from maybe one person on that side. But the majority has been incredibly supportive and empathetic, and the movie and Julie have been a huge part of that.”

The film actually began as a separate beast entirely meant to document the day to day work of forensic psychiatrists before Kastner met Sean. He cites the films he made prior to getting such great access to Sean while he was still in hospital prior to his release, especially given how normally closed off such institutions would be to camera crews. But now, with the film completed, the work has created a groundswell of interest within the psychiatric community, particularly those who deal with NCR cases, who see the film as a means of gaining understanding within a larger community outside of the mental health profession and the courts. Talks of the film being used as an educational tool have Kaster proud, humbled, and excited by the prospects for his film in the future.

“(Psychiatrists) really connect with the film because they are often dealing with patients that in some cases are branded by people as monsters. They sometimes can’t believe that anyone who watches the film, particularly a victim, could necessarily understand something that sometimes takes them a while to realize, as well. There’s been talk of using it as an educational too, even for Crown Attorneys, who normally don’t have this kind of specific training or any real protocol or frame of reference. And that’s exciting.”

NCR: Not Criminally Responsible debuts on Doc Zone on CBC Thursday, October 17th at 9:00pm EST. The full version of the film that screened at Hot Docs will also play on Sunday, October 20th on Documentary at 8:00pm EST.