Television

Halfway from hell

A film-maker continues his inquiry into parole

D’ARCY JENISH September 22 1997
Television

Halfway from hell

A film-maker continues his inquiry into parole

D’ARCY JENISH September 22 1997

Halfway from hell

Television

A film-maker continues his inquiry into parole

D’ARCY JENISH

In the opening frames of Romance with a Rapist, a documentary the CBC will broadcast on Sept. 25, Ken Jeffrey and Brenda Fitzpatrick appear as a loving but unconventional couple. He is a 45year-old farmer from southwestern Ontario—and a convicted rapist who is serving the last 18 months of a six-year sentence at the Keele Community Correctional Centre, a Toronto halfway house for parolees. She is trying to raise their two-yearold son and her teenage daughter on a modest salary while commuting from her Woodstock, Ont., home to Toronto several times a week to see Jeffrey. But at the outset of the onehour film, they share a love that sustains their relationship. She describes him as a romantic who showers her with “flowers and all the nice stuff that too many men forget these days.” And he calls her “my soul mate, my partner, my best friend, my lover.”

Their love has blossomed in a harsh environment—the federal corrections system. Romance with a Rapist, produced by Emmy Award-winning filmmaker John Kastner, depicts Jeffrey’s unsuccessful fight for overnight passes from the Keele centre so that he could spend weekends with Fitzpatrick and his son, and begin to reestablish himself in the community.

One of the female parole officers supervising him opposes the passes for fear that Jeffrey might re-offend—and cause a public uproar that could jeopardize her job. The dispute leaves Jeffrey and Fitzpatrick embittered and exhausted, and, as the film ends, their relationship is fragile.

Romance with a Rapist is a riveting piece of work. It is a real-life drama about two people—one considered a threat to society, and the other an average citizen—and how their relationship comes unglued under stress. But 47-year-

old Kastner is no tabloid television producer out to exploit and sensationalize the couple’s ordeal. Instead, he has used Jeffrey’s story to explore a broader issue—the public backlash in Canada against criminals and parolees, and the impact that this mood has had on the bureaucrats who administer the correctional system. “Parole officers are playing it incredibly safe,” says Kastner, “because the public has zero tolerance for any mistakes they make. I think they’re being unduly rigid and harsh, but I don’t blame them.”

Kastner, in fact, experienced the fury of the public in the spring of 1996 just as he and his two-member camera crew began shooting inside the Keele centre. A notorious B.C. pedophile named Bobby Oatway was granted a restricted form of parole and sent to the cen-

tre by Correctional Service Canada. Some of his victims, by then adults, notified the Toronto media, who publicized Oatway’s presence in the community. Those news stories led to stormy public meetings, protests and demands that Oatway be sent back to prison. That eventually happened— but not before the atmosphere inside the facility itself had become explosive. ‘The hostility towards him rubbed off on me because I was talking to him,” recalls Kastner.

“I attended one meeting for inmates, and the staff warned me in advance that I might have to leave if things got too hot.” Kastner captured the emotionally volatile affair on fdm, and turned it into a haunting documentary, Hunting Bobby Oatway, which first appeared on CBC last January. He also shot enough footage for a second documentary, called House of Secrets, which aired in March. A series of interviews with Keele centre inmates and staff, House of Secrets, lacks the dramatic punch of the films about Oatway and Jeffrey. It does, however, reveal the subtle, insidious repercussions of hardening attitudes towards criminals and parolees.

According to the film-maker, dozens of parolees are being sent back to prison to complete their sentences even though they have not committed new crimes or broken such conditions of parole as abstaining from drugs and alcohol. In many cases, Kastner says, they merely display what parole officers call a “deterioration of behavior,” a nebulous catchall phrase that includes, among other things, mood swings, appearing tense, or becoming angry and defiant. “Parole officers have tremendous arbitrary power, and they’re using it to send guys back at the drop of a hat,” he argues. “They monitor every mood of the offender, and it’s all written down. The theory is that a stressed-out offender is a dangerous offender. So, if you lose your temper and yell at somebody at the Keele centre, you could be going back to jail.”

Before he settled on the Oatway and Jeffrey stories, Kastner spent months at the Keele centre getting to know staff and inmates, and attending meetings before calling in a camera crew. That is typical of his approach to documentaries. “I never walk in knowing what it is I’m going to shoot,” he says. “I’ve got to be there and see it with my own eyes. Finally, there comes a point where it goes click, and I know what it is I want to capture.”

Kastner has been making documentaries, solely for the CBC, since the early 1970s. Besides films about prison life, he has produced controversial and sometimes pioneering works about homosexuality and various kinds of illness. He prefers to tell a story through the experiences of one or more individuals who are attempting to deal with a crisis in their lives. That narrow focus gives his films unusual intensity. “They’re documentaries that look like movies,” he explains. “I like to take one protagonist and follow him through the arc of a crisis. There’s a beginning, a middle and

an end. There’s suspense. There’s drama. By the end, the character has gone through a change.”

Kastner’s patient approach and powerful work have earned him international recognition. He won his first Emmy for the 1978 film Four Women, a fifth estate film about breast cancer, and, two years later, captured another for Fighting Back, a documentary about children with leukemia also produced for the fifth estate. In the mid-1980s, Kastner turned his attention to the federal prison

system and produced four films: a drama about life inside Kingston’s Prison for Women, a documentary about parole, another about a young, middle-class woman who was incarcerated for drug smuggling, and then his most celebrated work to date, The Lifer and the Lady, which earned him a third Emmy. It was a raw and searing film that depicted a prison romance between a career criminal serving a life sentence for manslaughter, and a Kingston woman whose marriage to a military officer had come unravelled.

Prisons, and the people who live behind bars, first captured his interest when he was a teenager in the mid-1960s playing the part of an adolescent offender in a National Film Board training film for guards. Several scenes were shot at Kingston Penitentiary, and in those days, he recalls, each prisoner’s sentence, along with the number of lashes he had received, if any, were posted above the door to his cell. For a youth, it was a harsh but fascinating environment. “Every second guy in the place was a movie,” Kastner says. “If you wind up in a federal penitentiary you’ve done something major. You’re an outlaw.”

As a producer of prison films, Kastner has witnessed profound changes within Canada’s pénitentiaries. The 1980s documentaries captured a more humane approach to managing inmates, in which prison authorities granted privileges like daily, as opposed to monthly, visits from family or friends, and temporary absences from the institutions. Kastner’s most recent prison documentaries, including Romance with a Rapist, depict the new chill among prison and parole officials that has made it much more difficult for inmates to get out and stay out. And public demands for harsher sentences have coincided with a deteriorating atmosphere within Canada’s prisons, due largely to drug use. “Our prisons are brutal, vicious and terrifying places,” Kastner says. “So what if you’ve got color TV in your cell? It’s like having color TV in hell.”

For all the time he has spent inside the prison system, Kastner seems to epitomize middle-class virtue. A father of three teenagers, he is married to a pharmacist, and he has the soft, slightly pudgy look of a man who studiously avoids fitness clubs and power workouts. He and his family live in a large, two-storey brick dwelling erected amid smaller postwar houses in a northwest Toronto neighborhood. From a monster home to the “big house” might seem an impossible distance, but Kastner has a trustworthy reputation behind bars. Yet he considers himself more a pragmatist than a bleeding heart on penal issues. “It’s not a question of feeling motherly about criminals,” he says, “it’s a question of what works. Is this new harshness making inmates more dangerous or less dangerous? I think there’s a great risk we’re making them more dangerous.” □