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‘He was tenacious’: Remembering Toronto filmmaker John Kastner

By Adam Benzine

In some respects, we have Dustin Hoffman and Mike Nichols to thank for the gift that was John Kastner. 

Born in Toronto to a writer-editor mother and an artist-sculptor father — intellectuals who translated the work of German playwright Bertolt Brecht — Kastner’s first brush with the entertainment industry came as a young actor.

He booked parts in 1950s CBC drama The Off-Shore Island and 1968’s Cannes Film Festival selection Don’t Let The Angels Fall, developing a budding career that saw him following in the footsteps of older brother Peter Kastner, who notably starred in Don Owen’s acclaimed 1964 NFB drama Nobody Waved Good-bye and headlined Francis Ford Coppola’s 1966 comedy You’re a Big Boy Now.  

On the back of their success, John and Peter both travelled to Los Angeles to audition, unsuccessfully, for a key part in Nichols’ 1967 classic The Graduate. How different life might have been had John landed the role and pursued the path of a thespian.

John Kastner in 2014.

Adam Benzine

But Nichols’ rebuff was to be Canada’s gain as, over the next five decades, Kastner instead went on to produce some of our country’s most important cinema and television. A four-time Emmy Award-winner, his death on Nov. 21 robbed Canada of one of its most gifted documentary filmmakers. 

The 73-year-old passed away at his home in Toronto in the arms of his partner of 20 years, following a year-long battle with illness. He leaves behind a career that saw him work with the CBC, TVO and the National Film Board (NFB) to produce a portfolio of brilliant and challenging non-fiction work centring on crime, punishment and redemption. 

From 1978’s Emmy-winning breast cancer investigation Four Women, made for the CBC’s current affairs unit The Fifth Estate, through to his final trilogy of groundbreaking mental-health films, Kastner produced a stunning repertoire of bold, thought-provoking documentaries.

Staunch and steadfast in his approach and pursuit, but compassionate and patient with his onscreen subjects, he sought out and portrayed those who had fallen between the gaps of society.  

In 1984’s The Lifer and the Lady, we see imprisoned violent offender Ron Cooney’s life change before his eyes, as he falls in love with a prison volunteer. 1997’s nuanced and challenging Hunting Bobby Oatway, meanwhile, questions whether a pedophile who molested his own children can ever truly be rehabilitated and reintegrated into society. 

2006’s Monster in the Family follows notorious criminal Martin Ferrier’s complex relationship with his controversial mother. And in 2010’s Life With Murder, we meet an Ontario couple struggling to accept their son back into the family after murdering his own sister. 

“He made films that were absolutely visceral and so emotional, and that at their strongest were almost unbearable,” reflects John’s nephew Jamie Kastner, who is also a documentarian. “My feeling watching Life with Murder or Fighting Back… it’s like being grabbed by the throat and shaken, it just doesn’t let you go.”

Time and again, Kastner eschewed populist morality, challenging viewers instead to try and empathize with murderers, rapists, pedophiles and the mentally disturbed. 

“He had such integrity and respect for the people who were in his films,” recalls Silva Basmajian, a long-serving former producer at the NFB’s Ontario Studio, who retired in 2013.“He wouldn’t call them characters, because he treated them all as such incredible human beings and understood how they got to where they got to, in order to tell their story. And because of that, he was able to get the trust of so many people who spoke to him about their lives and their difficulties.” 

Beyond his quartet of Emmys — for Four Women, Fighting Back, The Lifer and the Lady and Life With Murder — Kastner’s work won plaudits throughout his half-century career. 

He was feted with a career retrospective at Hot Docs in 2012, before later winning the festival’s Best Canadian Feature prize in 2014. He also received the Gemini Awards’ Academy Achievement prize in 2007, as well as its Donald Brittain Award for best social/political documentary.  

“He was tenacious, strong-willed,” recallsBob Culbert, the former VP of documentaries at CTV, who worked closely with Kastner.“You know, people often don’t want to see a film telling them that guys who do horrible things, actually, we should feel bad for them and we should let them out of prison. 

He was very good at changing people’s minds on controversial topics

“He knew that would not be easily accepted. But he was very good at changing people’s minds on controversial topics.”

“Johnny managed to make you question your basic assumptions,” adds sister Susan Kastner, a journalist, producer and former Toronto Star columnist. “You start with, ‘this is a monster and he should be wiped off the face of the Earth,’ and it becomes, ‘well, he is out, he has served his time according to the laws of the land, so what do we do now? Stone him to death?’” 

Kastner reached his filmmaking apogee with 2013’s NCR: Not Criminally Responsible, the first instalment of a final trilogy of films, which also includes 2014’s Out of Mind, Out of Sight and 2016’s NCR: Wedding Stories

NCR looks at the harrowing case of Sean Clifton, a man gripped by psychosis who, upon hearing a voice in his head telling him to go to a mall and attack the prettiest girl he saw, proceeded to stab a complete stranger six times, nearly killing then 22-year-old Julie Bouvier. Twelve years on, Bouvier grapples with Clifton’s release back into society, as well as the prospect of him finally coming off the antipsychotic drugs that have controlled his episodes. 

With intimate access to the patient, the victim and the Brockville Mental Health Centre, Kastner kickstarted a profound discussion about the treatment and perception of mental health issues in Canada, deftly avoiding sensationalism, and challenging us to view Clifton — as well as Bouvier — as being a victim worthy of our sympathy. The film changed many minds. 

In a breathtaking moment following its Hot Docs world premiere, Bouvier and her parents took to the stage to publicly forgive Clifton. Later that year, the film screened for some 170 psychiatrists at the Canadian Psychiatric Association’s annual conference.

The weeks since Kastner’s death have seen the expected outpouring of shock and grief from fellow filmmakers and TV industry professionals on social media. 

However, it has also seen noteworthy tributes from leading healthcare professionals, mourning a storyteller who helped change public perception in Canada. “He examined the deepest and most difficult aspects of mental illness with compassion and intense humanity,” wrote Catherine Zahn, CEO for the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).

Louise Bradley, president and CEO of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, added that she had screened NCR for a University of Alberta law class just before Kaster’s death. The film is “a vital text for breaking down stigma for individuals and in the system,” she wrote. “It’s value hasn’t diminished since it came out.” 

Kastner succeeded by placing compassion and empathy at the heart of his work, and often formed life-long relationships with the subjects of his films, staying in contact with Ferrier, Clifton and Cooney right up until his death.

“I remember him driving to Montreal at some point to help Martin Ferrier move,” nephew Jamie recalls. “He became involved in these people’s lives and he carried on being involved. He cared about them, he worried about them. And he did what he could to continue helping them.” 

“Even though he wasn’t religious at all, he really did believe in redemption,” adds Susan Teskey, John’s partner of 20 years, and a Gemini-winning, Emmy-nominated producer in her own right. “The idea that there’s something worthwhile in everyone. And that often, people are in situations not of their own making; that they deserve to be given another chance at life.” 

John and Susan first crossed paths at the CBC while working at The Fifth Estate, but it wasn’t until after the passing of John’s wife, Renee, that they would reconnect and fall in love. John and Renee had been married for two decades, and her death from cancer in the winter of 1998 left him suddenly balancing a filmmaking career while trying to raise three teenagers as a single father. But for John, family always came first.  

He could go from doing the most hilarious sketches to some of the most heart-wrenching, serious documentary work

Despite the heavy nature of his films, most who knew Kastner remember him as a playful figure possessed of a mischievous sense of humor, or as an intellectual who never took himself too seriously. “He was like a little kid much of the time,” recalls Teskey. “He loved being silly.”

“It was quite amazing to watch,” adds Culbert. “He could go from doing the most hilarious sketches – and he made some really hilarious documentaries as well – to some of the most heart-wrenching, serious documentary work. And he would often alternate back and forth. He told me at times that he would do that to give himself a break from all the heavy stuff.” 

Beyond his acting and documentary-making, Kastner collected an abundance of feathers for his heavily plumed cap. In the late 1970s, he starred in and produced candid camera-style comedy segments for the CBC’s short-lived late night show 90 Minutes Live. In the 1980s, he co-hosted Just Kidding, a kids TV show on CTV, alongside his sister Kathy. And, working with his mother Rose, he co-wrote the story for HBO and CTV’s Genie-winning 1983 docu-drama The Terry Fox Story, which starred Robert Duvall.

Kastner’s filmmaking legacy will live on, however, through the work of his nephew Jamie, to whom he was something of a father figure.   With some parallels to his uncle, Jamie too began his career with lighter, more comedic work, such as 2011’s Recessionize! For Fun and Profit! and 2012’s The Secret Disco Revolution. But his films have evolved, tacking meatier subjects and adopting a more serious tone, as demonstrated by 2016’s true crime doc The Skyjacker’s Tale and this year’s art world investigation There Are No Fakes. 

“When I was a kid, he and my grandmother were winning Emmys for these heavy duty films for The Fifth Estate,” Jamie reflects. “I was very proud of them and admired them, but I never particularly wanted to follow in their footsteps. But then I too caught the documentary bug and found myself slipping into this much more serious realm. I remember, this great story came my way and I called Johnny for advice, and he told me to go for it. So I ran with it.”

Kastner is survived by his partner Susan Teskey; children Danny, Gabe and Kira; grandchildren Laila and Theo; sisters Kathy and Susan; nephew Jamie, and nieces Jessika and Julie.