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Coming to grips with a gravely chilling story

Coming to grips with a gravely chilling story

The documentary retells the shocking 2010 case in Markham, Ontario.

Film: What Jennifer Did

Director: Jenny Popplewell

Cast: Fernando Baldassini, Samantha Chang, Alan Cooke, Bill Courtice, Deborah Gladding, Armand LaBarge and David MacDonald

Nonika Singh

More than one case in crime documentaries has been designated as ‘like never before’. One hundred per cent, ‘What Jennifer Did’ falls in that category. For, how often do you hear a story where a daughter not only turns against her parents, but resorts to vicious violent methods to get rid of them?

The title is a dead giveaway. The moment the investigation of Jennifer Pan begins, at the very instance her 911 call for help to the police is played out, we know something fishy is going on and she is hiding something far more sinister. Cleary, it’s not just a random break-in as she tells the police officers.

There are holes in her statement and it’s a matter of time before the Canadian police will get to the bottom of it. A murder, an attempted murder and an unharmed witness… and you need not be Sherlock Holmes to put it all together. Of course, when the witness is a seemingly traumatised daughter, the police can’t suspect her immediately. Their scepticism grows only when they delve into her background.

Bit by bit, the 2010 case in Markham, Ontario, unfolds. For a start, we learn how Markham is a crime-free area, home to diverse cultures. And this Vietnamese family is like any other immigrant family — in Canada to make a new life, an endeavour in which they succeed fairly. So what makes the daughter hire hit-men to do away with her parents? Well, we also get a peep into parental expectations, a natural demand of any Asian parent. But can that alone lead children, as in her case, to lie and finally resort to a dastardly crime?

Clearly, this is not an anatomy of parental pressure and the term ‘Tiger parenting’, which the press used at the time the case created shock waves, is not used in the film. Indeed, you don’t get a complete sense of what makes normal, ordinary people turn to such deplorable crimes. Besides, early on, we are introduced to her ex-boyfriend with shady dealings and then there is a love triangle too. With real footage of the police investigation, the documentary is gripping for its shock value. Premeditated murder of family members is not something that happens often enough. Why, the lead investigator even calls it ‘evil, as evil as it gets’.

Questions about whether retelling of crime cases like these which await a retrial is ethically right or morally ambiguous hang heavy. Do we need more or less of real-life crime stories on streaming platforms is yet another question to be pondered over. Controversy also surrounds this particular documentary, which has been accused of using an AI-generated image of the accused, a serious charge indeed, but denied by one of the executive producers. Netflix and the writer-director, Jenny Popplewell, have not responded so far. Then the omission of mention of Jennifer’s brother might be for credible, even legal, reasons. But that exclusion makes her seem like an only child, giving a different spin to the narrative.

Ethical conundrums aside, there is no denying that the documentary is an interesting watch, maybe precisely for what the case entails. However, there is no attempt to over-sensationalise. Following the usual format of weaving in interviews of police officers of the homicide unit and some friends as well as dramatised recreations, it’s the in-camera, closed-room interrogation of the perpetrator which is the high point of the film. It may not offer you a complete insight into what led to Jennifer’s emotional and mental meltdown, but sometimes, just telling a gravely chilling story is cautionary enough.