It is a day like any other. You go to work and arrive home to your family. Only this day will turn out to be like no other. As you walk in the door your children do not answer when you call for them. There is blood on the carpet. Your husband goes down the stairs to the basement leisure room only to discover your only daughter, a mere 18 years old, has been shot repeatedly. She is dead, and your son is nowhere to be found. Immediately you dial 911, asking for help but it is too late. This is what happened to the Jenkins family. Only adding to their grief was to have their only son, Mason (20 years old), arrested and convicted for the murder. There were no other suspects and to this day no evidence has come forward to support anyone else committed the crime. For ten years Mason proclaimed his innocence. With the resources of legal aide he appealed the courts conviction without success. His parents always standing by him and believing in his innocence.
Life With Murder (John Kastner 2009) is their story. Through archived police footage it shows the interviews that took place following the murder with all members of the Jenkins family, including Mason. In the present it follows the Jenkins while they visit their son in prison, having bar-be-ques and celebrating his birthday. We see them in their present home, the same one the murder occurred in, and how they have become recluses in the community. Shunned because of their support for Mason. In addition, there are interviews with family members and the police officers who worked the case. Adding their reactions to the situation at hand and whether they believe the Jenkins have made the right decision to keep Mason in their lives. We see Mason in prison, retelling the events of that day and everything that has happened since. In a cruel twist of fate we inevitably learn who killed Jennifer. It is a startling confession that makes experiencing this documentary something out of the worst horror story one could imagine. Especially when the murderer shows no signs of remorse and never asks for forgiveness. If this was not enough more details to the story are revealed. Things so unbelievable you wish this was a story out of the Hollywood movie factory. At the same time it makes you question the bond of family. Wonder what exactly we can forgive without ever being able to forget. The Director urges viewers to not pass judgment. To consider the fact that unless this has happened to you, and to most it has not and never will, you have no idea how you would handle the situation.
Upon watching Life With Murder you will have moments where you judge the Jenkins. It is impossible to not. You will think to yourself it is madness, that they have experienced a clear mental break from reality. Your morals will be tested. Most of all, and something I found most shocking, is how little you will empathize with the family. The way the film is constructed and how it purposefully holds back information, only to surprise you with it later like a puzzle being put together slowly, makes it very difficult to ever connect with any of the family members. You are always kept at arms length, leading to the ultimate issue I have with the film as a whole…it feels staged. It also lacks the level of emotion one expects from these real life characters dealing with such an amazing level of difficulty.
There are strong emotions in the raw footage from the day of the murder when being interviewed by police but the current footage presents everyone involved as very unaffected. This takes away from the authenticity as the viewer is undoubtedly reacting to the film with great emotion; be it that of anger, frustration, pity or astonishment. But you are not feeling anything for the individuals involved. That being the moment of realization of how a documentary that incites emotion as a whole, based on your response to the break in societal norms and lack of morality in this case, has done part of its job. When it neglects to promote a connection that goes deeper, something is not being portrayed accurately enough and the idea of staging becomes all the more likely. Questions are raised. How much influence did the filmmaker have on what was said or the actions that took place? Did the placement of cameras, and the fact that these people knew a film would eventually be made about their story, influence how they acted and what they said? If the filmmaker does not want to pass judgment then why does he continually use shots of Mason that give a monstrous impression? If in no other place but the ending, when a confession is made on camera as to who killed Jennifer, it is without doubt that last question goes through your mind. To wait so many years, have a wealth of opportunities to speak the truth, why would the murderer decide to do it on camera for the world to see? As the Director, John Kastner, stated in a Q&A after the film, “I think the presence of the camera played a role in Mason’s confession”[but]”the final confession came almost out of the blue”. The keyword here being “almost”.
It is impossible to know the events of that day or what happened between Director and Subject leading up to filming. By the way the scene plays out it is hard for me to see anything other than a form of reality television occurring. As we all know, reality television is nothing close to reality, it is scripted. I can hope this is not the case and I do not mean to take away from the amount of work involved with this documentary as the production value is good. I simply cannot reconcile that what I have seen is in fact natural. All I could think at the end, when trying to decide where this film falls in the documentary genre, is that it belongs with Nanook of the North (Robert J. Flaherty 1922). It is important for what it studies but the validity of it open to speculation. Harsh words I know, but I still recommend watching Life With Murder. It raises so many questions, gives rise to great points of debate, and examines the “family” as few documentary films ever have, given the events at hand. It puts out a dilemma and asks you, the viewer, to draw your own conclusions. This is a film that should not be missed.
Life With Murder was screened at The Los Angeles Film Festival (2010). It currently does not have a scheduled release in The United States but information on the film is available on the NFB website.