“I'm just a guy from the psych who's starring in a documentary'

John Kastner speaks to the audience at the Brockville Arts Centre Thursday evening.Is Sean Clifton evil or ill?

That's the question posed by director John Kastner in his documentary NCR: Not Criminally Responsible.

Along the way, and quite surprisingly, he also manages to show us Sean Clifton is funny.

Kastner warned the audience at Thursday night's Brockville Arts Centre screening in advance about the humour in this documentary.

A good idea, since the incident at the centre of this film, Clifton's brutal and near-fatal stabbing of a young woman in Cornwall, is not a laughing matter.

“It's OK to laugh,” Kastner told the crowd. “Mental patients are people too.”

Indeed they are. That's the point of the film. People can do both horrible things and funny things. Life is never black or white.

Some of the laugh-out-loud moments in NCR include Clifton's observation that, while he works at a car wash on the grounds of the Brockville Mental Health Centre, he would find it too strenuous actually to wash the cars.

“I need a desk job,” he says.

Later on, while having coffee and a danish at one of this city's Tim Hortons, Clifton signs an autograph for a woman in the coffee shop who is intrigued by the camera crew following him around.

“I'm just a guy from the psych who's starring in a documentary,” he says.

That one earned him applause.

Think of it. Applause for a guy who plunged a knife multiple times into a young woman. While that same woman is actually sitting in the front row.

Most of that laughter – all of it, I'm inclined to bet – was sympathetic laughter. It came from the same people who later hugged the victim, Julie Bouvier, on the way out of the theatre.

Regardless of where one stands on the political debate over mentally ill offenders, and this documentary's positioning in that debate, it's the mark of a great piece of cinema when something like that can happen.

NCR will be aired on the CBC sometime in the fall, and arts centre administrator Peter Dunn is working on getting it back for another screening at the arts centre as well.

It's well worth watching if you care about an honest debate on mental health.

It's also worth watching if you care about Brockville.

Kastner jokingly apologized to the crowd for having Brockville “stand in for Cornwall” in the film. Any Brockvillian would instantly recognize the locations being shot. (King Street East looks quite amazing while zipping by on a dashboard cam, by the way.)

NCR actually paints Brockville in a very positive light. Residents are shown to be accommodating toward BMHC patients, and staff at the institution are shown to be sharp, professional and articulate.

If one cares about Brockville, one has to acknowledge “The Psych” is a part of its existence, its identity and its character. Brockville has been a mental institution host for too long to not acknowledge that the people inside “The Psych” are a part of its soul.

NCR offers a rare glimpse inside this usually hidden part of Brockville. That, too, is a good reason to see this film.