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Remembering John Kastner

Reflections on the ‘Dostoevsky of documentary’

John Kastner while filming Life with Murder (2010)

John Kastner was charmed by POV’s advocacy of him wanting to be called the Dostoevsky of documentary, but that term didn’t completely capture the immensely talented director-writer-actor’s impish charm and personal style. His major feature documentaries NCR: Not Criminally Responsible, Life with Murder and Out of Mind, Out of Sight display a Dostoveskian compassion towards people who have committed terrifying crimes, but he could never have made those films had he not been able to persuade deeply troubled individuals to trust him. He often did this through his wit and storytelling prowess, which so often broke the inherent barrier between a filmmaker and a subject. Though Gogol or Chekhov, who employed comedy in their inherently serious work, might have been more appropriate as role models for Kastner, he always insisted that Dostoevsky, the writer of Crime and Punishment, The Gambler, and The Brothers Karamazov, was his major influence.

Kastner’s “eureka moment” was reading Crime and Punishment as a teenager. He was so moved by Raskolnikov’s pity and concern for others despite being capable of murder that it made him want to be a serious storyteller. During his teens and early twenties, John was an actor, the junior Kastner to his brother Peter, who played the lead in the NFB’s and English Canada’s first critically acclaimed dramatic feature, Nobody Waved Good-bye. John had many wonderful tales about his youthful adventures as an actor, putting on a mellifluous voice while recalling working with legendary actors Irene Worth and William Hutt on The Off-Shore Island or talking about being in the Cannes-nominated drama Don’t Let the Angels Fall

Life with Murder
NFB


He began working in documentaries in his thirties at CBC-TV. Early on, he garnered two of his four International Emmys for Four Women and Fighting Back, both about people combatting cancer, before attempting other artistic pursuits. He co-hosted with one of his sisters, Kathy, a children’s show, Just Kidding, and co-wrote the story with his mother Rose for the award-winning docu-drama The Terry Fox Story. He acted and shot “candid camera” docu-comedy episodes for CBC-TV’s ill-fated late night talk show 90 Minutes Live starring Peter Gzowski.

Kastner returned to documentary directing with CBC, winning yet another Emmy for The Lifer and the Lady, about a woman who falls in love with a prisoner in the Kingston penitentiary, as well as making such tough but fascinating work as Prison Mother, Prison Daughter, Hunting Bobby Otway, and Monster in the Family. He perfected a skill in depicting people in dire circumstances—prisons, long term care facilities, mental institutions—revealing their essential humanity to audiences. Excellent in their own right, the TV docs led to his final foray into feature non-fiction films co-produced by the NFB, which may prove to be his lasting legacy.

NCR: Not Criminally Responsible
Photo by Geoff George / NFB


John Kastner was extremely proud of his family’s artistic achievements. Besides working with his mother Rose and sister Kathy, and being an acting “colleague” of older brother Peter, he was so pleased that sister Susan produced docs for her son, Jamie, who is keeping up the family tradition as a documentary director [There Are No Fakes, The Skyjacker’s Tale]. John’s long-time partner, the sophisticated Susan Teskey is a producer and director, who worked on such CBC documentary shows as The Fifth Estate and Canada: A People’s History.

Speaking personally, John was one of those charismatic individuals, who could brighten every encounter with his witty tales and interest in how others were faring. He could be tough about others but always tried to be fair in his judgements. John had a genuinely empathetic spirit, which made it part of his nature to understand others.

He made a doc once called Sinner in Paradise about a filmmaker—John—who is torn between Eastern spiritualism as practiced on the Bahamas and a desire to sneak out to go to a casino. It was, as he said to me, quite silly, but there was a serious side to it. Most winters, he would head off to a yoga retreat in Nassau and return refreshed. It’s truly sad that those journeys have been discontinued.