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Not Criminally Responsible: Wedding Secrets is a sequel to Not Criminally Responsible, a vividly illuminating documentary made three years ago.
Not Criminally Responsible: Wedding Secrets is a sequel to Not Criminally Responsible, a vividly illuminating documentary made three years ago.

John Doyle: This doc is the strangest tale of horror, forgiveness and love Add to ...

Look up the phrase “We live in hope and die in despair,” and you’ll find it described as an old adage. Well, like a lot of old adages it isn’t accurate or universally true. Most of us hope to never reach despair and we hope that even from bitter failure and loss, something positive emerges.

In certain circumstances, of course, we react in terrible anger and many people want retribution, and that is what our criminal justice system tries to weigh, day in and day out. As a society we tend to ebb and flow on the issue of punishment and retribution. There are times when we despair and times when we hope, desperately, for the inherently benign to emerge after horrific crimes are committed.

John Kastner’s extraordinary, award-winning documentaries have dealt emphatically with this issue. His Life with Murder, released in 2010, dealt with a mother and father faced with the reality that their son stood accused of murdering his sister.

Not Criminally Responsible, made three years ago, was a fine and vividly illuminating documentary – and something of a sensation at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival – about the rehabilitation of Sean Clifton. The man, diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic with an obsessive-compulsive disorder, had stabbed and almost killed a woman, a stranger to him, in Cornwall, Ont. In the doc, the woman’s family came to know and forgive Clifton.

Not Criminally Responsible: Wedding Secrets (Thursday, CBC, 9 p.m., on Firsthand) is an astonishing, at times mind-boggling, sequel to the story. If you are in search of hope, of glimmers of benevolence and enchantment in the world, watch this. It is, as it states at the start, about “a wedding born of a terrible act of violence. Most of those involved will be coming to the ceremony.”

First, some context, which is duly delivered in the documentary. Sean Clifton stabbed the young woman, Julie Bouvier, six times. She almost died. Clifton was placed in a forensic psychiatric facility and put on heavy medication. He was paranoid and, says a doctor, “had the worst case of OCD I ever witnessed.”

Julie’s family wanted him kept in hospital. That is the natural response of a victim or a victim’s family. When Clifton showed extraordinary improvement, after many painful years for everyone, eventually he was released and supervised, but on his own for part of every day. Julie’s family was devastated.

In the first Not Criminally Responsible doc, footage of Clifton’s recovery was shown to the Bouvier family. They were transfixed and astonished by his OCD rituals. They came to terms with the fact that the man who had injured their daughter was very, very ill. Julie went to the Hot Docs screening. On TV, she said of Sean Clifton, “You can’t help but feel sorry for him.” But she struggled with the idea of meeting him.

Meanwhile, in the intervening time, John Kastner continued to document Clifton’s life and struggles. Clifton had admitted that he got his girlfriend pregnant when he was 15. The child, Jonathan, was put up for adoption. Clifton hoped his son would contact him and he waited, as the first documentary made his case famous. But the adult Jon McMahon didn’t want to meet him, didn’t want to watch the doc all the way through and wrote to the filmmakers asking about the pros and cons of possibly meeting his father. Eventually, Sean and Jon met. A bit wary of each other, but Jon began to help Sean with mental-health issues. Then Jon met Julie Bouvier and “an improbable friendship” grew between them.

While this was being chronicled, Jon met Nicole Rogers, a producer on Not Criminally Responsible. As Nicole says, “It was the closest thing to love at first sight I have ever experienced.”

And that is the “wedding secret” that emerges eventually from this tangled tale of anger, violence, grief, acrimony, fear and forgiveness. Jon and Nicole invited the Bouvier family, including Julie, to the wedding, which took place this past summer. What ensues is profoundly important as an insight into what the heart can deal with. There is no showdown, no great drama. There is only evidence that the heart is a complicated thing, that the adage “Life is full of surprises” is more apt than “We live in hope and die in despair.”

The program is also a reminder, as it is meant to be, that the criminal-justice system cannot embrace all the complexities of life and human nature.

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