Because it’s a film that so crucially relies on carefully developing its story, and playing out its various startling revelations with measured restraint, it’s tricky to talk about John Kastner’s Life With Murder without exposing its secrets. (Indeed, we’ve been explicitly urged by the producers and Kastner himself to check any impulse to do so.) But it’s no spoiler to say that the triple Emmy Award–winning Canadian filmmaker has produced what will likely emerge as one of the most talked–about documentaries to screen at this year’s Canadian International Documentary Film Festival, better known as Hot Docs.
Co-produced by the CTV, NFB, and Kastner’s own production company, Life With Murder tells an exceptional story that’s made all the more improbable by virtue of its verity. In January 1998, the town of Chatham, Ontario became the unlikely site of a murder, when eighteen-year-old high schooler Jennifer Jenkins was gunned down in her family home. Just as her traumatized parents were coming to terms with their daughter’s death, local police zeroed in on their prime suspect: Jennifer’s twenty-year-old brother, Mason.
Though Mason asserted his innocence, he was eventually convicted of first-degree murder, and is now serving a life sentence at a medium-security correctional institute nearly 500 kilometres from the scene of the crime. Determined to keep what family they have left intact, Brian and Leslie Jenkins remain in close contact with their son, frequently visiting him in prison, exchanging jokes and birthday gifts. Life With Murder is at once a gripping small-town murder mystery and an agonizing portrait of parents’ grief, which only deepens as the film unfolds.
Again, to say too much about Life With Murder is to effectively ruin it. But with its premiere at Hot Docs this weekend to be followed by an airing on CTV (date TBA), as well as other robust (though also undisclosed) distribution deals in North America, it is a film that demands to be seen and, afterward, seriously talked about.
Walrusmagazine.com spoke with Kastner about how he discovered Mason’s case, and the manner in which his film’s story revealed itself.
How did you happen across Mason Jenkins?
I was making another film in the same prison, in the same unit that Mason was in. I made a two-part film for CTV that preceded these films, called Monster in the Family. We used Mason as a decoy, because [repeat* sex offender] Martin Ferrier, who was the subject of Monster in the Family, didn’t want to get any heat from the other offenders and didn’t want us to film him in range of his cell. So I had this idea, where I thought, suppose we tell people we’re not doing the story of Martin Ferrier, we tell them we’re doing the story of Unit Five, which was the unit they were in. We asked Martin to recruit a couple of inmates who we would film out in the open while we quietly filmed him in his cell, so nobody would know it’s his film. That’s how I met Mason.
When did you become interested in Mason’s story?
That prison is the largest prison in Canada, and there are many heavy-duty offenders with fabulous stories. So I didn’t pay a lot of attention with him. But eventually, I became fascinated with the idea of how criminals — serious violent criminals — reconcile with their families. I was interviewing Martin Ferrier and he was saying that his mother, who actually led a national campaign to have her son locked up forever, was not only trying to destroy him, but didn’t visit him. Martin said to me, “I’ve been here for eight years and she’s only visited me once. But there’s this guy in here who was convicted of murdering his sister and his parents visit him all the time!”
How long after you first began talking to Mason did you decide set about turning your cameras towards him?
So much of what goes into a film like this, where we’re dealing with an incredibly touchy topic, is building a relationship with the subjects. I had a good relationship with him and his parents. Plus, they knew from Martin that I did what I said I would do. So I had cleared out all that underbrush, which usually takes a lot of time. In late 2007 we started in earnest. I actually turned down money to produce it. I spent my own money. I’d never done anything like that in my career. I just had absolute confidence in this story.
Were the Jenkins immediately responsive?
One of the things that’s remarkable about the film is that this is the first time they’ve all really talked about what happened that night [when Jennifer was murdered]. When Leslie is sitting beside Mason in the [prison] kitchen in the first scene, that’s the first time they have that discussion. And they have it on camera. That sets the pattern for the rest of the film.
The film is paced in a very deliberate way, where it builds to these different revelations. I had assumed that this was just the way you put the film together.
The film is built to surprise you. It’s been called a real-life murder mystery, a real-life thriller. Mason was convicted of first-degree murder, and had spent years protesting his innocence. But then in the course of filming there’s this remarkable twist where we find out who really did murder Jennifer, and that individual confesses to the murder on camera. These were amazing revelations and it was the first time anybody had heard them: the parents, the police, anybody. Pandora’s box opened. We were stunned.
Some of the most emotional and telling material in the film is presented as closed-circuit footage from cameras in the police station, where Mason is questioned and his parents are briefed by the investigating officers. It seems exceptional that you would have access to that footage.
It was very hard to get. It took nine months of, shall we say, discussions with the Chatham-Kent police who were worried about the Jenkinses. They were worried that Brian and Leslie would find this footage shattering. They allowed me to look at it, but they wouldn’t give me permission to use it, initially. Immediately I thought that these are people who have been cut dead, or stigmatized, even by their own family. There are people who cannot forgive them for supporting Mason. They feel it’s almost a betrayal of Jennifer. I looked at this footage, and nobody who has a heart can look at this footage and be angry with these people. It’s just heartbreaking material.
And look, how many people in the world have been through what they’ve been through? The experience of the Jenkins family is so remote from what most people on the planet go through that it’s almost like a visitor from the planet Venus trying to explain to you what life is like on the planet Venus. But you see this footage, and it’s like you are experiencing [the horror] with them. You are at their elbow as this horrible day or two unfolds. When you find out that Mason is a suspect, they find out that Mason is a suspect. I told them that if we put some of this footage in, we were going to melt some of the hearts of those who’ve been cold.
After viewing the final product, are the Jenkins thankful for the film?
They’re pleased at the outcome. I talk to Leslie almost day and have for weeks and weeks now. At the end of the screening, their reactions were typical. Leslie’s a very contained woman, as you can see in the film, and Brian’s the opposite. Brian was mopping his eyes during the screening. They hadn’t seen much of the footage of Jennifer before. It was the first time they saw her come back to life a little bit. And that was so poignant for Brian. At the end of the screening, he said it was hard for him to watch. But he was glad.