Most of what you’ll read about triple Emmy-winner John Kastner’s latest film, Life with Murder, will begin with a disclaimer stating there’s not a lot you can say about the story arc of the film without spoiling it. We’ll say the same thing. What we can say is that the film, produced by Kastner’s prodco JS Kastner Productions and the NFB in association with Canadian broadcaster CTV, doubles as both a heartbreaking and at times harrowing real-life murder mystery, and a meditation on unconditional love.
The Jenkins family of Chatham, Ontario, was struck by the unthinkable on a January night in 1998, when their 18-year-old daughter Jennifer was found murdered in the basement of the family house. The lifeless, bloody body was discovered by her parents, Leslie and Brian, while their older son Mason was nowhere in the house. Police eventually charged Mason with the murder and the then-20-year-old maintained his innocence, saying he was abducted by four men who subsequently killed Jennifer. After being convicted of first-degree murder, Mason spent years appealing the sentence, while his parents, Leslie and Brian, had to make the decision whether to support their son and keep him in their lives, or break off ties completely and effectively lose both of their children.
Through the course of the film, we see new evidence come to light to reveal the killer’s true identity – evidence that was being unearthed as Kastner and team were filming. ‘The killer did in fact confess on camera and we never dreamed it would happen,’ says the director.
Kastner, who has covered crime extensively over the span of his career in documentary filmmaking, first met Mason in Ontario’s Warkworth jail while working on his previous two-part doc Monster in the Family, which also dealt with a relationship between a convict, Martin Ferrier, and his family. But while Ferrier’s mother branded him a ‘monster’ and fought hard to keep her son in jail (he was released shortly before the doc aired on CTV), Mason’s parents still regularly visited their son in the same prison, even though he was convicted of murdering their daughter.
‘I had started talking to Mason and the family in 2005, and we didn’t start to get seriously interested in the story until two years later,’ says Kastner. But although Leslie and Brian had seen Monster in the Family and were willing to have their story documented, it was still difficult to ‘peel back the layers’ of silence that the family had engaged in for so long.
‘They didn’t discuss with Mason or anyone else in the family whether he was guilty or innocent – they just buried it,’ Kastner says. ‘So setting out to make a major documentary about something that no one wants to talk about – that was a challenge!’
But the family members do talk in the film, and the audience sees the interaction between Leslie, Brian and Mason. The audience is also privy to, thanks to both Kastner’s diligent efforts and the intervention of the Jenkins parents, heart-rending police interrogation footage from the investigation as well as the 911 call made to the police by Leslie and Brian.
Kastner says a major distribution deal is soon to be announced, as is an air date on CTV. The doc will eventually have the opportunity to be seen by larger audiences in North America and beyond – fresh from its North American premiere at Hot Docs, it makes its U.S. debut as part of the documentary competition at the L.A. Film Festival on June 18. Still, Kastner says the opinions of two viewers in particular – Leslie and Brian Jenkins – were of paramount importance. Thus, he opted to screen the film for the couple over three consecutive weekends.
‘Brian, when it was over, said, ‘It was hard to watch but I’m glad I did,” he recalls. ‘Leslie is very restrained in showing her emotions, but when I turned to her she was beaming. And she said, in her very restrained way, ‘You’ve been doing some work there, haven’t ya?”