It should have been cause for celebration. In April 2013 the world premiere in April 2013 of my film NCR: Not Criminally Responsible at the Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto was fast approaching. Yet I was dreading the release of my own film.
Just as the film was about to be released, an ugly backlash developed in Canada towards NCR sufferers of mental illness like Sean Clifton, the film’s main subject. In some places, it became almost a vigilante mood. I became very afraid of what might happen to him when the film came out.
Sean had been living incognito in Brockville, Ontario. Fourteen years earlier, in a psychotic frenzy, he had tried to stab a woman to death...but almost no one there knew what he did. Now, thanks to our film, they would be finding out. Would it destroy Clifton’s quiet life? Destroy him?
On top of that came the event I had been putting off for as long as I could. I had promised to screen a rough cut for the victim and her family. It was the moment I dreaded most. When I first met the Bouviers they were so angry at Sean. How would they feel about a film that portrayed with such empathy the man who tried his best to murder their daughter?
With heavy heart, the associate producer Nicole Rogers and I began screening the film for the Bouviers at their home in Cornwall, Ontario. As the film progressed, we could hear Andy Bouvier, the victim’s father, snorting in derision at some of Sean’s statements. Then the family got very quiet. They were seeing a radically different view of Clifton. For one thing, they really had no idea how sick he was. To most laymen OCD means excessively washing your hands or flicking a light switch. The Bouviers had no idea how severe and crippling Sean’s OCD rituals were until they saw the film.
The screening ended and the lights went up. The first words out of Andy Bouvier’s mouth shocked me: “Well you gotta have empathy for the guy, " he said, “I can’t believe I’m saying this. I mean, Sean Clifton. But you gotta have empathy for him."
It was the most incredibly moving moment. The Bouviers got it. They had forgiven him.
Suddenly I had a crazy hunch: “Folks I have no right to ask you this,” I said, taking a deep breath. “As you can see, Sean is still ill and relatively fragile. I am afraid that once the film goes out there it could do him real harm. However I believe that if the public sees that the victim and her family forgive Sean, no one out there is likely to attack him. Your forgiveness could be his shield. It could save him. Would you ever consider saying some of what you said here tonight, publicly?"
Well, it didn’t take them two seconds to agree. Since then they have proclaimed their forgiveness of Sean in one public appearance after another, on radio and TV and in public screenings of the film, inside and outside Canada.
Thanks to them and to an empathetic film, Sean circulates freely in Brockville today. He is often recognized by people who have seen the film and who know what he did. He is often approached in the street — by well-wishers. To date he has not had a single negative reaction.
The Bouviers have credited their change of heart to seeing my film as well as to their deep faith. I was incredibly touched to learn this. And you know what other nice thing has come of this? I don’t dread the screenings of my film anymore.
Watch the update to this story NCR: Wedding Secrets on Firsthand November 24 on CBC.