By John Kastner
DREADING MY OWN FILM’S RELEASE
It should have been cause for celebration: the approaching world premiere in April 2013 of my film NCR Not Criminally Responsible at the Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto. But in fact I was dreading the release of my own film. We were having a secret crisis and were frantically trying to keep it out of the press.
I was terrified the film was going to be a disaster – more specifically, that it would harm its main subject, Sean Clifton, a sufferer of mental illness, who, in a psychotic frenzy had tried to stab a woman to death in 1999.
Ironically when the film was conceived in early 2010 I had high hopes it would have a positive impact and help Sean gain acceptance. At that time the term NCR was barely on the radar of most Canadians. And in earlier films I had successfully helped to de-stigmatize other controversial subjects. It seemed a fairly safe bet to put a patient’s face out there on national television, albeit in an extremely careful and sensitive manner.
AN UGLY BACKLASH TO NCR PATIENTS
Then in February 2013 the NCR issue exploded into the consciousness of Canadians. After a series of high profile incidents, Steven Harper, our law-and-order Prime Minister, introduced the Not Criminally Responsible Reform Act, a harsh new piece of legislation targeting sufferers as if they were criminals who must be punished.
Almost overnight an ugly backlash developed towards NCR sufferers like Clifton. We became very afraid of what might happen to him when the film came out.
AFRAID FOR SEAN
Sean – who suffers from both severe OCD and paranoid schizophrenia. -- had been living a quiet life in Brockville, Ontario. Almost no one in the community knew what he had done. Now, thanks to our film, they would be finding out.
In such a climate had we made a terrible mistake putting the faces of NCR patients on national television? Would the film destroy Sean Clifton’s quiet life? Destroy him?
SCREENING THE FILM FOR THE VICTIM AND HER FAMILY
Now came the event I had been putting off for as long as I could. I had promised to screen a rough cut for the victim and her family. It was the moment I dreaded most. How would they feel about a film that portrayed with such empathy the man who had tried so hard to kill their daughter?
When I first met the Bouviers they were so angry at Sean and the authorities for releasing him. The new legislation would make it easier to keep NCR patients like Sean confined. Clifton was doing well in the community and we were afraid Andy Bouvier might use our film to try and force him back into the hospital.
With heavy heart, the Associate Producer Nicole Rogers and I drove with the film to Cornwall, Ontario where the Bouvier family lives.
The screening began. As the film unfolded, we could hear Andy Bouvier, the victim’s father, snorting in derision at some of Sean’s statements. But there are also amusing moments and at times I could hear titters from Julie and Noella. But were they laughing with Sean…or at him?
Then they got very quiet. Clifton had been the monster in their lives for over a decade. Now they were seeing a radically different view of him. They heard Shawn White, chief detective of the Cornwall Police, describe Clifton, their daughter’s would-be murderer, as a good person. “Of course (NCR patients) are good people. He did a bad thing but he’s a good person. And that’s why we must never give up on them.”
A SHOCKING REACTION
The screening ended. The first words out of Andy Bouvier’s mouth shocked me: “Well you gotta have empathy for the guy, “he said, “I can’t believe I’m saying this – I mean, Sean Clifton! But you gotta have empathy for him.’
“Now I’ll tell you something I’ve never told you before,” he continued. “I was going to kill him. The night of the incident my brother-in-law took me to the scene of the crime. I made up my mind then and there that if my little girl had died, I would kill Clifton.”
He shook his head, almost in disbelief, and repeated quietly: “But seeing this – well you gotta have empathy for him.”
It was the most incredibly moving moment. The Bouviers understood. They had forgiven him.
UNAWARE HOW ILL HE WAS
For one thing, they really had no idea how sick he was. To most laymen OCD means excessively washing your hands or flicking a light switch. The Bouviers had no idea how severe and crippling Sean’s OCD rituals were until they saw the film.
They also realized Sean was a dramatically different personality than they imagined. Instead of the hairy, scary brute of their nightmares they were seeing a lucid, likeable, intelligent man.
THE BOUVIERS’ TRANSFORMATION
And the Bouviers’ transformation had only just begun. In the moments after the screening ended, I listened to them discuss with wonder their new-found compassion and forgiveness for Sean. I suddenly had a crazy hunch.
“Folks I have no right to ask you this, but…,” I said to them and took a deep breath. “As you know there is this so much hatred and misunderstanding out there towards NCR patients. Frankly, we are very concerned for Sean. He is still ill and somewhat fragile. I am afraid that once the film goes out there it could do him real harm.
A CRAZY HUNCH
“I believe there’s one thing that could save him: you guys. If the public sees that the victim and her family forgive Sean, who out there is going to attack him? Your forgiveness could be his shield. Would you ever consider saying some of what you said here tonight, publicly?”
Well it didn’t take them two seconds to agree. From that point onwards, the Bouviers began to play a remarkable new role in Sean Clifton’s life. Since then these wonderful people have made one public appearance after another proclaiming their forgiveness of Sean, on radio and TV and in public screenings of the film, inside and outside Canada.
(I don’t know about you but I just love these people, the amazing, amazing Bouviers. How often do you find such decency in people in this troubled time?)
TENSE SCREENING IN BROCKVILLE
But the greatest test of the Bouviers’ impact and influence arose when the film was screened in Brockville where of course Sean lived. Many of the locals were up in arms about NCR patients being released from the hospital into their town and recently things had turned particularly ugly.
The media had begun began out-ting patients living incognito in the community. The Brockville Recorder, the local newspaper, ran a front page story by reporter Ron Zajac with a photo of angry citizens standing in front of the house where one of the NCR patients lived. Brockville is a small town; suddenly most everybody knew where to find him. There are many forensic patients living quietly in the community. They were terrified.
NO PATIENTS ALLOWED TO ATTEND
The hospital was deeply concerned; they ruled that no patient would be allowed to attend the screening – not even its star, Sean Clifton, although it was his life story. The fear was ugly outbursts from the audience might traumatize patients who were already ill and fragile.
The Brockville police were notified, and hovered nearby the theatre in case of an incident.
The place was jammed. About 550 people, a lot for a town of only 22,000 -- including Ron Zajac, the reporter who had written the disturbing story out-ing the mental patients on the front page of the newspaper. We prepared ourselves for the worst.
OH WHAT A NIGHT!
The Bouviers were introduced to the audience. The screening began and….well, whaddaya know: the audience loved the film. Roared with laughter at the funny bits. Listened respectfully to the Bouviers in the Q and A. Applauded enthusiastically when they spoke of forgiving Clifton. Absolutely loved the film, maybe the best audience we ever had. Go figure.
The reporter Ron Zajac could scarcely believe what he was seeing. He proceeded to write four positive front page stories in a row about the film and the event. In his blog he marvelled at seeing the hostile citizens of Brockville turn the screening into a love-in:
“Think of it. Applause for a guy who plunged a knife multiple times into a woman. While that same woman is actually sitting there in the front row of the theatre…(and it was) sympathetic laughter…Regardless of where one stands on the political debate about mentally ill offenders, it’s a mark of a great piece of cinema when something like that can happen.”
Way, way too generous…but as the Four Seasons sang: “Oh, what a night!”
THE EFFECT OF THE FILM ON CLIFTON
Finally, the most important test of all: what was the effect of the film on Sean Clifton?
Most NCR patients in Canada are in hiding; they dare not show their faces in public. If they are spotted and recognized venturing outside their hospitals, there is often a public hue and cry. But there is no outcry when Sean Clifton is spotted in public. Since the film’s release in 2013 he circulates freely in Brockville. He is often recognized by people who have seen the film (which has been re-broadcast repeatedly) and who know what he did. He has been approached many times in the street…by well-wishers. And now he goes to screenings of his film. At one screening in Toronto he received a standing ovation. To date he has not had a single negative reaction.
T he B ouviers have credited their change of heart in part to seeing the film as well as to their deeply held religious convictions. I was incredibly touched to learn this.
And you know what other nice thing has come of this? I don’t dread the screenings of my film anymore.