By John Kastner
“HOW CAN THEY HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH HIM?”
When Karla Homolka was first charged in connection with the rape and death of her sister, Tammy, I recall looking at the photos of her and her family, seemingly so cosy together, and wondered, “How can they talk to her? Look at her? Have anything to do with her? After what she did?”
I got my chance to explore such questions in Life With Murder, which examines the excruciating dilemma faced by parents when one child is convicted of murdering the other: whether to accept the alleged killer back into the family? Or to break with him, obliterating their family in the process?
Brian and Leslie Jenkins have stuck by their son Mason right from the start. “They have supported me in every way,” he says. “Emotionally, financially, you name it.”
PAYING A PRICE
And paid a steep price for doing so. Instead of the compassion and sympathy accorded most victims when their child has been murdered, they were stigmatized by many in their hometown, even by some friends and family members.
Some feel their support of Mason is a betrayal of Jennifer, a popular, warmly-remember girl (600 mourners attended her funeral). One police officer told me: “If my son murdered my daughter, I’d break with him for sure. And if my wife wanted to support him I’d divorce her in a heartbeat.”
Friends would cut them in the street. Some family members broke with Mason, refused to talk to him. To this day at family gatherings at Christmas time, when Mason calls from prison and the phone is handed around, some duck out of the room.
“People wonder why we do it,” Leslie Jenkins sighs. “I say, well, he’s my kid. You don’t throw a kid away.”
“WE’RE IN PRISON, TOO”
They considered moving from their house in Chatham, but there were no buyers. Too spooked, the agents said. So they became semi-recluses, rarely leaving the house except to go to work.
Their feelings of claustrophobia were heightened by unexpected incidents. At one point during the legal proceedings, the lead detective in the case began dating the owner of a restaurant-bar they frequented. He would occasionally help out in the place, sometimes even cleaning the Jenkins’ table.
To his wife’s annoyance, the gregarious Brian would sometimes chat him up: “I’d say to Brian, ‘You don’t have to be so friendly to him. He’s not our friend.”
In a big city like Toronto or Detroit, they could have moved to the other end of town, into relative anonymity. But in Chatham there was no escape.
“We’re in prison, too,” sighs Leslie,” We’re also serving a life sentence.”
A LINGERING TRAUMA
Shortly after the murder Brian began experiencing horrific flashbacks, waking up repeatedly from a nightmare about finding Jennifer’s body. (He kept his wife from seeing Jennifer that night; she never saw or got to say goodbye to her daughter until the day of funeral).
The shattered Jenkins knew they badly needed help. They were referred to Dr. W.V. Mc Dermott, an American trauma specialist living in Windsor who has treated PTSS (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome) in 9/11 victims and US soldiers returning from the front. He believed the Jenkins suffered from it as well.
Asked to compare their trauma with that of the combat-shattered soldiers he has treated, McDermott responds without hesitation, “The Jenkins’ trauma was far, far worse. At least the soldiers had an enemy they could hate on whom they could blame their trauma. The Jenkins only had their son.”
McDermott treated the Jenkins for nine years. Ironically while they are extremely grateful to him, crediting him with, amongst other things, helping to save their marriage (most couples who lose a child split) McDermott feels he failed them in one important way: “Brian always believed in Mason’s innocence. I tried for nine years but never could get Brian to accept the possibility that Mason might actually have killed Jennifer.”
PEELING BACK THE LAYERS
Indeed, when I first met them, the Jenkins seemed to be living in a kind of cocoon. They had never had a single conversation with Mason for over 10 years about the events of the night of the murder. Nor had they discussed it with even their closest relatives. Mason’s guilt was never raised. Mason himself never discussed the murder with any of them.
This presented an interesting challenge for a filmmaker: how to conduct a major investigation of a subject when the participants don’t want to discuss it? Brian and Leslie were generous with their time, but would they open up to us? Or were they living – as some suggested -- in a kind of Never-Never land, refusing to face facts about Mason? And how to explain their steadfast support of him, visiting him in prison regularly? (How could they talk to him? Look at him? Have anything to do with him?)
A colleague and I began meeting them in Chatham for well over a year, often twice a month, gradually peeling back the layers of their psychological armour. At first they revealed very little. But it became apparent they were more aware of the awful details of the murder than they had initially let on. They parked the information in a mental drawer, so to speak, as a survival mechanism to help get them through the day.
Eventually they decided they had bottled up their story for too long; it would be therapeutic to discuss it with someone besides a shrink who was sympathetic and who was familiar with the criminal justice system. Important to them, too, was helping other families learn from observing their own tortured efforts at healing and reconciliation.
I think the Jenkins are wonderful people. I so admire their great character and integrity. Many in their shoes would have tried to protect their son by fudging the facts to the authorities. But the Jenkins’ remarkable, often painful, honesty is apparent in their videotaped interviews with the police – not to mention in their interviews with us.
POLICE AND PRISON OFFICIALS
The two law enforcement officials
featured in the film – Detective George Vieira of the Chatham-Kent
Police and CX2 Cathy Belanger of the Correctional Service of Canada’s
Warkworth Institution – were a documentary-maker’s dream, two of
the finest natural interviewers I have ever seen. (Mason often confides
in Cathy Belanger in prison – he is on her caseload --and like most
offenders, much of his life is conducted before cameras, thus the extreme
naturalness of their exchanges).Without the revelations they elicited
The effect of the stunning police materials – the videos, photos, the 9/11 call -- is to make audiences feel that they are not so much watching a film as actually experiencing the events of those first 48 hours right there at the Jenkins’ elbows. Chatham-Kent Chief Dennis Poole, who had been in charge of the original investigation, at first had serious misgivings about making these materials public. He was concerned about the Jenkins, afraid they would be devastated by the material. But once the Jenkins themselves requested their release, arguing it was important for their healing process to have other people -- especially people critical of them – put in their shoes by seeing this wrenching material, Chief Poole agreed and could not have been more helpful. We owe him a great debt of gratitude.
SCREENING THE FILM FOR THE JENKINS
Screening the film for Brian and Leslie was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do in my filmmaking career. You’re not supposed to screen programs for subjects in advance of a telecast; most networks have a policy against it. The main concern is that they will apply for a prior injunction to halt the broadcast, a tactic which almost never succeeds, but can be an expensive headache.
I decided to break the rules. The Jenkins had been through so much pain…and Brian was not well….I felt I had to do it for them. But the idea of making them sit there and re-live that horrific night seemed unthinkable. What to do? I decided to screen it for them incrementally over a couple of weekends, stopping and starting every few minutes to check if they were OK, before proceeding further…When it came to the most searing sections, such as the 911 call, I pressed the mute button so they wouldn’t actually hear the excruciating audio (but made sure they knew the content, the actual words, spoken in those scenes).
Finally, there were the confessions. For the first time since Jennifer’s death in 1998 they would be hearing the killer confess, would learn what happened that night and why. I sent them the transcripts of these sections in advance, so they could prepare themselves. Then returned to Chatham to screen the rest of the film.
When the closing credits began, their relief was almost palpable. In her understated way, a beaming Leslie turned to me to say, “You’ve been doing some work there, haven’t you?” I realized it meant she was pleased.
“It was hard to watch,” said Brian, who occasionally had to wipe away tears as he watched it, “but I’m glad I did.”
Not that he wants to see it again. Brian and Leslie will be attending the premiere at Hot Docs in Toronto, but will slip into the theatre only at the end of the screening to participate in the Q and A.
As for Mason Jenkins himself, the journey he travels over the course of the film is nothing less than remarkable. In person he can be Mr. Affability and exhibits a disconcertingly strong sense of family feeling. (People meeting convicted killers for the first time often expect them to behave like movie villains a la Hannibal Lecter, and are surprised to find them often to be amiable, intelligent and normal-seeming.)
From the start he protested he was innocent, filing several legal appeals over the years. Then, in an astonishing twist, we learned during the filming who really killed Jennifer Jenkins. The murderer confesses on camera.
I can say no more. I would be giving away the amazing developments in what Lynne Fernie, the Senior Canadian Programmer for Hot Docs has described as a “real-life murder mystery”. See the film.
This experience has been perhaps the saddest as well as the happiest of my documentary career. Sad of course because it’s impossible not to be deeply affected by prolonged exposure to Jenkins family and their heartbreaking story. Happy because of the extraordinary support I have received from the National Film Board, CTV, Canadian Television Fund, Rogers Documentary Fund, Canwest, Hot Docs, The Canadian Film or Video Production Tax Credit. Very special thanks to the NFB’s Cindy Witten and Michelle VanBeusekom who shepherded this project through the gate; and to Silva Basmajian, my brilliant NFB co-producer who demonstrated, to my amazement, that you can teach an old doc dog (that would be me) new tricks. Thanks, too, to Robert Hurst and Corrie Coe of CTV for their support, not to mention Bob Culbert who commissioned the piece. Very special thanks, too, to Lynne Fernie, Gisele Gordon and Sean Farnel of Hot Docs. Also, it has been a great relief as always to have my wonderful, indispensible co-producer, Deb Parks at my side…
When the credit, “A Film
by John Kastner” was proposed I turned it down. I prefer instead the
credit, “A Film Directed by John Kastner”, because there
are so many other artists working on this film who did such fine work,
including my longtime associate, Greg West (editor) Mark Caswell and
John Westheuser (camera), Doug Kaye (sound recordist), Bruce Fowler
(music) not to mention the important contributions made by Amy Barnes.
A very special thanks to the Chatham-Kent Police Service and the Correctional
Service of Canada for aiding us above and beyond the call…Finally,
my greatest thanks of all goes to the Jenkins family, as well as to
Mason’s aunts Paulette and Trish and their families, for their astonishing
generosity in letting us into their hearts, lives and memories when,
to put it mildly, it was anything but easy. I only hope we’ve
done your story justice.