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With a nod to Uncle John, left, Jamie Kastner has begun to carry the torch for a family that has become a fixture at documentary festivals.
With a nod to Uncle John, left, Jamie Kastner has begun to carry the torch for a family that has become a fixture at documentary festivals.

Carrying on the Kastner family business Add to ...

Two generations of the Kastner family bring work to the Hot Docs festival in Toronto this week, as four-time Emmy-winner John Kastner and his nephew Jamie rub shoulders at North America’s largest documentary festival.

Both are regulars on the Toronto film circuit. Now 62, the elder Kastner has been at Hot Docs the past three years: In 2012 he was honoured with a career retrospective, in 2013 he premiered his hard-hitting mental-health doc NCR: Not Criminally Responsible, and this year he presents a follow-up called Out of Mind, Out of Sight.

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Where NCR focused on the violent offender Sean Clifton, and his reconciliation with the stranger he stabbed and nearly killed in a fit of mental instability, Out of Mind offers a broader portrait of patients at the Brockville Mental Health Centre.

The new film “is about patients who are still inside the hospital, who are sicker than Sean Clifton was,” John says. “It follows two men and two women for 18 months, as they grapple with the dramatic ups and downs of being that ill. It’s a real cross-section of life inside what they used to call an asylum for the criminally insane.”

Meanwhile, 42-year-old Jamie Kastner pitched his next film on Thursday at the Hot Docs Forum, a Dragons’ Den-style event that sees filmmakers presenting to a room full of international commissioning editors, in a bid to raise the money they need to complete their documentaries.

The story of The Skyjacker’s Tale focuses on a convicted murderer who in 1984 hijacked an American Airlines jet and rerouted it to Cuba, where he has been living on the lam ever since. Jamie has tracked down the fugitive – who is still on the FBI’s most-wanted list – and persuaded him to tell his story on camera.

The Shaw Media-Hot Docs Fund has already backed The Skyjacker’s Tale with an initial grant of $11,000, and the younger documentarian is looking to find the remaining $345,000 he needs to complete his budget.

“In some ways, it’s the most challenging thing I’ve done,” says Jamie, whose previous docs, including 2007’s Kike Like Me, 2011’s Recessionize! and 2012 TIFF hit The Secret Disco Revolution, adopted a more humorous tone. “It’s a total departure, and such a hot-potato issue. Here’s a hijacker, a convicted murderer … it sounds much more like my uncle’s terrain. I’m the pop-culture guy,” he muses, adding that he learned much working for John as a researcher and associate producer, shadowing him on films such as 1997’s Hunting Bobby Oatway.

“To watch my uncle at work was very impressive,” he recalls. “He’s like a cat walking through these dark places – he treads so lightly, dealing with these hard-assed criminals on the one hand and very tough staff on the other. It was a huge education that has stood me in good stead.”

For the Kastners, filmmaking is something of a family business. John’s mother Rose served as associate producer of three of her son’s Emmy-winning documentaries, while his sister Susan Kastner, Jamie’s mother, did the same on several of her son’s films.

John’s other sister, Kathy, has also worked with him on TV projects, while his brother Peter (who died in 2008) was an actor noted for starring in Francis Ford Coppola’s You’re a Big Boy Now.

“One thing that we have in common is the ability to recognize and take a joy in people who are crazy, colourful and flamboyant,” John reflects with a grin.

While the younger filmmaker has no qualms in acknowledging that his uncle is the more established doc-maker, the times are changing. The model of international co-production that Jamie has embraced now represents the norm for documentary filmmaking, while the age of big-budget commissions from a single broadcaster is in decline.

For the elder Kastner, whose films have always been financed by Canadian organizations such as the CBC, TVOntario or the National Film Board, the climate of funding cuts and austerity is hitting hard.

“I’m lucky because I was grandfathered into the business – both literally and figuratively,” he says. “If I had to start today, I don’t think I would. It’s that much harder than when I started out.”

Jamie Kastner agrees that the market is rough, but remains upbeat. “Documentaries are so difficult and so impractical to finance these days – if it ever was a business it’s even less so now,” he says. “And yet, what do you do? A great story falls into your lap, you can’t resist.”

Out of Mind, Out of Sight plays at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Sunday. More details at hotdocs.ca.

With 197 documentaries to choose from, which ones should you see? Check out The Globe's guide to the best of the fest.

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