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The footage of Sean Clifton inside the Brockville Mental Health Centre is startling.
The footage of Sean Clifton inside the Brockville Mental Health Centre is startling.

John Doyle

'Disturbing' doc takes an inside look at Sean Clifton and the perpetrator’s experience Add to ...

It is a fact that an effective way for one politician to attack another is by declaring that the opponent is “soft on crime.” We live in that kind of country now. Even the cats and dogs on the street are probably aware that the federal government is tough on crime, building more prisons and talking up the importance of victims’ rights. Look out, criminals. Lock ’em up and throw away the key. That kind of thing.

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In this context, the importance and greatness of NCR: Not Criminally Responsible (CBC, 9 p.m. on Doc Zone) cannot be overstated. John Kastner’s fine and vividly illuminating documentary caused something of a sensation at the Hot Docs festival and has already been screened and much discussed in Britain. “Disturbing,” “controversial” and “provocative” are the adjectives used to describe it. I prefer “illuminating.”

What it illuminates is what happened to both the victim and the perpetrator after a horrific violent crime.

In October, 1999, in Cornwall, Ont., a man approached a woman, a total stranger to him, and stabbed her six times. The victim, Julie Bouvier, was 22 years old and thought she was dying there in a pool of blood. The attacker was a local, Sean Clifton, 31, known to police for his odd behaviour, but never known as violent. Clifton stood dazed at the scene, and was arrested without fuss. Later he was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic with an obsessive compulsive disorder. A voice in his head had told him to attack the next pretty girl he encountered.

It’s hard to watch Bouvier’s parents as they describe seeing their daughter in hospital. They try, but are overcome at the memory of it and can’t speak. Bouvier herself is, at first, reluctant to be filmed in a way that makes her recognizable. She talks calmly about the pain and the multiple surgeries. You know there’s an ocean of roiling, complicated feelings under the calm exterior.

What’s truly startling is the footage of Clifton inside the Brockville Mental Health Centre, interviews with those who treated him and Clifton himself. Some viewers will be astonished to hear one of the staff say, “Our job is to rehabilitate them. Whether it’s a shoplifter or somebody charged with two counts of murder.”

Clifton is different now. He has written to the Bouvier family and met the parents. He hasn’t met Julie. He’s on medication and out there in society, but not in Cornwall. Is this safe for him and for the community? That’s the question that makes the documentary so compelling. We get unusual insight into the hospitalization and treatment of Clifton, who is a representative figure for the mentally ill. We’re asked to consider if we are comfortable with how Clifton emerges from years of care and treatment.

A scene near the end, at a Tim Hortons, is very deftly done and one feels it is hardly an accident that it unfolds at a Tims, because we asked how, as Canadians, we really want to deal with people like Sean Clifton.

Also airing tonight

Reign (CW, CTV Two, 9 p.m.) is new and an interesting hybrid – it’s historical-costume-drama-meets-teen-soap-opera. We’re in the 16th century and Mary, Queen of Scots (Adelaide Kane) is worried about boys, marriage and stuff like that. Mostly she hangs out with her buds, who giggle and gawk and wiggle and talk about boys. A lot. Anyway, Mary is supposed to marry this French prince, but there is the distraction of this hunk named Bash. It is oddly compelling, this series, in the first episodes. There is little shying away from the heightened sexuality of the teenage girls, although a saucy scene in the version sent to critics this past summer, was cut. The first episode was made in Ireland, it’s now being filmed in Toronto and our Megan Follows turns up as Catherine de’ Medici.

By the way, tonight’s serious Doc Zone program is preceded on CBC by a lively Nature of Things: Myth of Science (CBC, 8 p.m.) The effervescent Dr. Jennifer Gardy returns to dwell on such beliefs as this – “Exercise reverses the aging process,” “You can be both fat and fit,” and “Music can repair brain damage.” Some people would watch Gardy explain any darn thing at all. Last year I wrote, “Meet the next TV science-nerd star, one Jennifer Gardy.” Still true.

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