20 Sep 2018 | BY Sarah Thomas - @SarahTtheWriter
Ghosthunter is not a snapshot of domestic violence and sexual assault. It’s a full, confronting, expansive picture of the continuing, long-term and widespread effects of the turbulent journeys of the victims.
It’s harrowing, disturbing viewing, but healing and closure is at the heart of Ghosthunter, the first feature documentary from director Ben Lawrence and producer Rebecca Bennett (who had previously worked together in commercial production). That message, and its insights over the seven years the documentary captured, has seen it taken on board by various agencies working in the field to demonstrate the full impact and consequences of trauma in detail that goes far beyond depicting individual incidents.
This film, which is executive produced by Margie Bryant (the AACTA-nominated Brilliant Creatures), took the award for best Australian documentary at this year’s Sydney Film Festival. It started off as a investigation into the nature of grief and the story of Jason King, a western Sydney security guard and paranormal investigator. He had embarked on his part-time ghost-hunting passion after communicating with the ghost of his brother, Peter, who had died in a car accident.
King visited haunted family homes for free. His was not a ghoulish take; his aim was to heal and fix disrupted domestic lives. Unbeknownst to him and the filmmakers at the start, it was the perfect metaphor for the extraordinary story the doco turned out to be.
It begins by attempting to piece together missing, forgotten details about King’s childhood and life, including those of his estranged parents. As it progresses, the blanks do get filled in, only it’s with cases of family violence, the sexual assault of children, depression, suicide attempts – and multiple victims.
Although the film is being released now, Bennett says it has a life far beyond cinemas and they’ve been working with organisations such as Good Pitch Australia, which supports partnerships between filmmakers and organisations that impact social change, the NSW Sex Crimes Unit and Victims Services and Blue Knot Foundation, which supports adult survivors of childhood abuse – all of whom are using it for education and staff-training purposes.
Says Bennett: “A lot of people are wanting to use it to show the type of people they’re dealing with on a daily basis and what the background is. For example, we screened it to a magistrate several months ago and he said, ‘I’d love to show this to other magistrates because we just see this person as a piece of paper with an AVO coming on my desk. But this is the story that’s behind that.’
“It’s to do with making the world a bit more trauma-informed and being aware that there’s reasons for all of this going on, and having more empathy around that.”
Early on in Ghosthunter, King’s quest to find his father leads him to hospital records where he discovers that as a child he sustained multiple incidents of brutal injuries. At aged three, a flowerpot stand apparently fell on him, smashing his teeth in and giving him a lacerated palate and a permanent facial scar. King remembers nothing of this, nor any of the incidents. Doctors have told him he’s blanked out all the trauma; his mum said he was a “clumsy kid”.
The King family at the time were continuously relocating, making it easy for Jason to slip through the net – in one 18-month period, he changed schools six times. One social worker who investigated his case, Louise Voigt, said he came from a home of “chronic neglect and abuse”.
As King makes these discoveries in the documentary, a long-lost childhood friend, Cathy Quinlan, in an act of astonishing timing, gets in touch to reveal information about sexual assaults against children by his father, of which she was among the victims.
The film has a positive outcome, not least because it allows the victims’ stories to be heard. And they are hugely complicated stories. Jason’s road in the seven years of Ghosthunter is one of broken relationships, depression, suicide attempts, homelessness and then the revelation that he has committed acts of domestic assault, too.
The emergence of details about King’s violence threw up a very difficult question for the filmmakers. Duty of care was always front of mind for Lawrence and Bennett in dealing with the often fragile King, and it was also a difficult line to draw between observing events and influencing them. Lawrence, however, happened to be at that time working on a domestic violence campaign for the Victorian government which was about calling out other men over behaviour, and says he had no choice but to approach King about it.
“I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of confronting him because it was obviously happening on camera … [but] I felt it was really important to say something, just on a one-to-one level because I felt like Jason would listen to me and his ongoing behaviour may change, or he may pause to think because I had called him out,” says Lawrence. “But then the biggest [aspect] I felt was the responsibility to his current partner or future partners, that someone around him should say something that he potentially would listen to.”
A lot of King’s story – and its eventual positive outcome – has to do with the healing power of time but again about getting his story heard, and being guided and helped along as he was processing it, says Lawrence. Ghosthunter is also being developed into a four-hour podcast to be released next year and will dig deeper into the stories of the other people featured in the film, such as the incredibly brave Quinlan.
Bennett says there’s a strong range of female voices in the film, including Quinlan, there’s Voigt, Detective Senior Constable Ellen Quinn and Jason’s sister Linda.
“It’s interesting,” says Lawrence. “It’s almost like he’s understood through the women around him and, whether they be family members or police detectives or childhood friends, it’s through them that we understand or he came to understand who he was and what [he became].”
The message of Ghosthunter is absolutely one of confronting ghosts in difficult, challenging stories. Lawrence says his previous experience directing Man Up, a 2016 ABC TV documentary series about male depression and suicide, helped to equip him for King’s darker moments and the need to seek help.
“I hope that other men like Jason, see this film and see that there’s an opportunity and a possibility that they can change their behaviour,” says Lawrence. “I also feel like anyone who’s in the situation doesn’t want the situation to continue, when you look at the families that are faced with hardship around domestic violence or childhood trauma.
“Everyone wants to get out of that situation and it’s the shame and the guilt that really keeps a lot of people from coming forward and asking for help.”