Thursday, May 03, 2012

Jeff depicts different sides of a serial killer

Jeff. The simple title could easily be affixed to a family comedy about a precocious eight-year-old and the innocent mischief he gets in with his pet guinea pig.

But Jeff, which played the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto on Sunday night, is a film chronicling the heinous crimes of American serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. It's early incarnation was as a fictional feature wherein director Chris James Thompson created scenes of things he imagined the Milwaukee, Wisc. resident did while not murdering, dismembering and snacking on young men. But when Thompson's friends yawned at an early rough cut screening, the young filmmaker knew he had to take a new approach.

You'll be glad he did. Some of those re-enactments (which feature no blood or gore at all) have been kept in to show how relatively mundane Dahmer's life often was. But news footage from the days following Dahmer's July 22, 1991 arrest reveals some of the sickening details of his crimes and how they impacted not just his victims and their families but an entire city.

It's three recently filmed interview subjects (okay, maybe just two of the three), however, that take Jeff to the next level up.

Pamela Bass lived across the hall from Dahmer in an apartment building in a poor black neighbourhood and uses the term "friendly but introverted" to describe him. "He was kind-hearted. He would share what he had with you," she goes on to say, before adding later on in the film that she became terrified that human remains could have been in a sandwich that she innocently accepted from him. Bass also reveals that she was offered $50 by a stranger in exchange for simply sitting on a couch that Dahmer had given her.

Police Detective Patrick Kennedy spent six weeks interrogating Dahmer after his arrest and probably came to know him as well as anyone ever had. While he became a minor celebrity for his role in bringing the killer to justice, the bushy moustached cop admits that being so close to such horrors took a toll on his personal life and played a role in ending his marriage.

The least compelling of the interviewees is Milwaukee medical examiner Jeffrey Jentzen, whose clinical detachment makes his recollections seem less compelling than his two counterparts -- even when he describes opening Dahmer's fridge and finding little else but a human head and condiments inside it.

Thompson and Kennedy were on hand to answer audience questions after the Hot Docs screening I saw (the film's first official screening was in March at the South By Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas), and their insights helped make the film come to life even more. You probably won't have the same opportunity to interact with the two men, but I still recommend the film to anyone interested in seeing how the banal and the horrifying can often jarringly co-exist with each other.

Jeff's final Hot Docs appearance will be at 9:45 p.m. on May 4 at TIFF Bell Lightbox 2.

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