Earlier this year, we ran a story on the rehabilitation and release of Vince Li, the man who decapitated and cannibalized a man on a Greyhound bus—needless to say it caused a bit of a shitstorm in the comment section. Turns out a lot of people believe that anyone who cuts the head off a stranger on public transportation and then proceeds to eat parts of his body should pay for his actions by being locked up forever, or handed the death penalty. Society already has a tough time dealing with people with mental health issues, and when you add a violent offense to the stigma and discrimination they face every day, it’s no surprise that keeping them locked away seems like a good idea to most of society.
But Emmy award-winning Canadian documentary director John Kastner has set out to convince those people that they're wrong. Kastner has spent much of his career delving into the lives of the darker, forgotten sides of society and finding the nuances to what might seem like simple issues. Films like Life with Murder (2012), Hunting Bobby Oatway (1997), and The Lifer and the Lady (1984), all deal with the aftermath of convicted criminals coming to terms with their actions and the very human drama that affects the people around them.
His latest films NCR: Not Criminally Responsible (2013) and Out of Mind, Out of Sight (2014) (both of which will be screened this week at Toronto’s Bloor Hot Docs Cinema), deal with yet another section of humanity that many have written off: people with mental health issues who are found to be not legally responsible for their actions after committing violent crimes.
NCR documents Ontario man Sean Clifton’s release back into society after eight years of treatment following a psychotic episode during which he violently stabbed a woman in a Walmart. Out of Mind, Out of Sight focuses on four patients’ struggles as they return to society, including the story of Michael Stewart, who killed a family member and is tormented by crippling guilt. To shoot the film, Kastner spent 18 months with unprecedented access to the Brockville Mental Health Centre. I called him up to talk about the experience and to learn why the films are being seen as extremely important in the mental health world.
VICE: What do you say to those who think mentally ill people who commit violent crimes should never be released?
John Kastner: Well, it’s a good question and of course we have heard it. It’s almost impossible to imagine what these guys are like in real life, what the institutions are like. But you can’t turn people around simply by words. It’s the great power of a documentary, of an observational doc. It’s one thing that we can do really well, because you know what happens in life when these terrible offenses are committed—you see these sinister images of the guy and then they disappear and you never hear from them. So the image that’s left with the public is that they are the act they committed that dark night—they’re monsters, they have to be. We said, "No. You’re going to have to meet these people properly. You have to be introduced to them. You have to hear them talk. You have to look into their eyes. You have to see the way their minds work and you judge for yourself if somebody has committed a monstrous act is, of necessity, a monster. It’s an illness."
What was your perception of mental illness going into these films?
I had the same stereotypes everybody else did. But Dr. Lisa Ramshaw of [the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health] was my muse and my mentor—it was her idea completely. She’s a forensic psychiatrist and she came to a test screening at the Film Board of an earlier film of mine called Life with Murder. I’ve made a number of films trying to help de-stigmatize somebody—often criminals. Lisa asked to see a couple of my other films and said, “You know, if there’s any group of people that need de-stigmatizing, it’s sufferers of mental illness, especially those who’ve committed serious violent offenses.” They’re kind of seen as monsters by the public. It was almost impossible to get into these institutions. Look at the media—nobody gets in for more than five minutes.
That’s what struck me most: The access that you had to these institutions was amazing.
It’s unprecedented in this country. I was there for over three and a half years. Both films together took place over 18 months. And people said, “Oh boy, you’ll be lucky if you get three or four patients to cooperate.” They’re so demonized by the Canadian public. Well, there were 59 patients at that hospital and we ended up filming with 46 of them and over 75 staff members in the two films.
John Kastner, speaking on "The Agenda with Steve Paikin." Screencap via YouTube
What was it actually like once you got behind the scenes?
I’ve had much experience in prisons. I’ve dealt with a lot of dangerous people. I’ve been threatened by a lot of people who you don’t want to have threaten you, people with notches. I had no idea what to expect and I was absolutely spooked the first day I came in. But it’s fear of the unknown. I was relieved to find when I got to know the staff that most of them were also spooked when they came into this place. I had this one nurse in the film who said, “When I first came in, I just kept my mouth shut. When I walked down the corridor, I kept my back to the wall.” I just did not know!
How challenging was it to make these films?
The overarching goal was a nearly impossible task: Could you take someone who’s committed a horrific act of violence and A) Make people understand their illness, that they’re not evil, that they’re ill. B) Could you then go beyond that, beyond simple understanding, and actually make them feel for these people, care about these people? And C) Could you do all of that without in any way diminishing the ordeal of the victims? It’s a very tall order, but you be the judge of whether we succeeded or not.
I think what helped make it work was how the films are structured, particularly NCR, when you follow Sean Clifton’s rehabilitation after stabbing that girl nine times.
We’re telling the story twice—it’s kind of like Rashomon. You hear about the crime, the way you would hear about it as a layman in the news reports to begin with and all the prejudices that we bring with it. My God, it sounds like he’s a monster. Then after you get to know him, we dare to retell the story of the crime from not only his perspective, but we actually take you into the mind of a quote-unquote madman in the midst of a psychotic break as he’s trying to commit a murder. Amazingly, he remembers.
His change in demeanor from the beginning to end is astonishing.
Yeah, I call it the Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation. It’s almost like he took a potion. The evil Mr. Hyde took a potion and became the kindly Dr. Jekyll again. That is the first thing I saw that made me decide I have to make this film. In the research process, I saw guys coming in in what they call a floridly psychotic state—not long after they had committed some terrible violence.
Once they start giving them injections of the antipsychotic drugs and talking to them (what they call cognitive-behavioral therapy)—within a couple of months—you could see these guys returning to planet Earth. First they would not be violent and the restraints were no longer necessary (which they often were when they’d first come in), and they’d be talking gibberish when they first came in, and you’d see the gibberish slowly start to recede. After two or three months, you could begin to have a conversation with that person who came in look like a “raving lunatic.” For a layman to watch such a transformation, let me tell you, it’s almost magical to behold. I say people have got to see this, they’ve got to understand how there’s help for these people, there’s hope. There’s much that can be done for them.
It was weird how by the end I was actually kind of rooting for the guy, and how I felt the victim and her family just had to meet him and to forgive him, which sounds crazy before watching the film.
In the second film, Out of Mind, Out of Sight, the main guy’s name is Michael Stuart—he killed his own mother. And his brother addresses this point at the end of the film—and he will be there at the second screening at Hot Docs this week. I asked “Was it hard to forgive him?” And his brother said, “Look, to raise the question of forgiveness... You don’t forgive people who are ill. You don’t forgive somebody who has cancer; it’s an illness, that’s what it is. We all understand that. Unfortunately there are two victims in this case: my mother, who unfortunately lost her life, but there’s another victim and he still is suffering.”
You see a film like this and hopefully, finally, the lightbulb goes on. You meet the guy, you say, “My God, he’s a smart guy, he’s a likable person, he could be me, he could be my brother.” They often are very intelligent people suffering from schizophrenia. It’s a cruel, horrible, tragic disease.
Finally, why has it taken so long for a film like this to be made and what do you think should be done moving forward?
I wrote an op-ed in the Globe and Mail saying it’s time for psychiatrists to stop hiding their patients from public view. It was a well-intentioned idea—they’re afraid of stigma, they want to protect their patients, and it’s done out of kindness and concern. But you know what? It’s been a disaster.
People think of them as monsters. You cannot de-stigmatize anyone by hiding them from view. What happens, of course, is into that vacuum, people will take their images from scary movies like Shutter Island or whatever, and it sends a terrible signal to the public. What you’re saying to them basically is, “We think that these people are such freaks that we dare not let you look at them.” So it’s a failed policy and without meaning to do so, they actually, for the kindest of motives… have enabled some of the stigma.