David Ridgen is an award-winning independent Canadian filmmaker. His first feature drama, Memento, filmed in Kingston in 1996, was met with critical acclaim. He went on to win awards for his documentaries On the Borders of Gardens, Buried Alive, Return to Mississippi and American Radical, and has made four investigative films about alleged cold cases for the CBC. In 2012, Confession of Murder Part 1 resulted in the re-arrest and first degree murder charge of the case’s prime suspect. The Queen’s grad is best known today for his wildly popular CBC true-crime podcast Someone Knows Something. Ridgen will be speaking at The Holiday Inn Kingston Waterfront on March 3rd as part of this year’s Kingston Canadian Film Festival. Tickets are $20 in advance and are available at Brian’s Record Option and online. Doors open at 6pm.
1. Tell us about yourself – where were you born and what brought you to Kingston? The city has changed a lot since you were here. What did you love about living in Kingston? Tell us a bit about your background relating to broadcasting and filmmaking.
I was born in Stratford, ON. My father worked in the aeronautics industry there and then started his own business, whereupon we found ourselves in Eastern Ontario. Arnprior. So, that’s where I grew up mostly. Always feeling like an outsider at the time, though now I feel less like that. It’s a good town and the people, mostly, would give you their shirts. My mother and father both attended Queen’s. Mom was a nurse and dad an electrical engineering student. A classic pair. Though I don’t think my dad ever went purple. My mother apparently used to help surreptitiously make wine in the Grant Hall bell tower. I went to Queen’s too. For film. My time in Kingston is a blur of no sleep, swimming, experimental plays and films, panic attacks, and making lots of friends. I spent endless hours at Lino’s Restaurant that used to be at Princess and Division. I still have a strong group of friends in Kingston.
2. In dealing with decades-old cold cases, you talk to people who have suffered through terrible ordeals and been left without justice. As you get to know these people, do you find yourself getting pulled in and personally affected by these cases? How do you balance objectivity and your emotional response?
It’s part of the job is the easy answer. And I’m not sure emotional response and balancing objectivity need be considered in the same sentence. Any actual reporter or journalist or writer or filmmaker or creator who tells you that they are unaffected by the subject of their work is either lying or…they are lying. A few weeks ago I was looking at crime scene photos for SKS’s season 5. I knew as I looked at them that they would be coming back into play several months after Season 5 ends, sometime later in 2018. If you accept that it will return to haunt you, it’s better. Fighting against haunting is like trying to cure OCD by washing your hands again. The ritual does not stave off the affect. That’s the way the mind works when it tries to protect you. It’s best to just throw yourself into it all, accept the role of investigative sponge and accept the consequences and revel in them, actually. Otherwise you aren’t really doing the job. All of the cases I work on are traumatizing for all involved. Victims, families, investigators, and people like me who try to look for forgotten avenues in the aftermath. I deliver factual information and I also deliver speculation. But I make sure audience is aware of which is which.
3. Not knowing exactly where a case might take you must give you some pause when choosing a case. In addition to that, I imagine not everyone is keen to participate. How do you go about selecting the cases for SKS, and how difficult is it to get the right people to agree to take part?
I have stacks of cases on my desk in folders. Some of them I have begun my process of evaluation on, and others are on standby. I have limited resources and cannot tackle just any case. I look for certain pillars:
- is there a passionate family member who is willing to confront those dark areas?
- are there law enforcement officers, either current or retired willing to help?
- Is there a viable suspect or suspects?
- does the case make sense to tackle within the show’s resources and within the mandate of pubcaster CBC?
- can SKS make a difference?
- how do I feel about the case in my gut?
4. Before SKS, you created numerous documentaries and cold case films that garnered critical acclaim. What sparked your interest in broadcasting/podcasting? What are the major differences working in/with these mediums? Do you have a preference for one over the other?
Podcasting is a completely different medium than what I have worked in before. Not because of how one constructs stories for them, but because of how they are consumed by audiences, how they affect audiences, and how the audiences form a very specific relationship and bond with you as the host. Also, podcasting allows for more depth, it essentially does away with “the slot” or the constraints of a broadcast time base. I am speaking from a public broadcaster’s perspective. But podcasting has become a very capitalist endeavour. Branded podcasts are de rigeur. Segmented audience advertising etc. My focus is on delivering stories that inspire a difference through agency. I don’t care about the capital part. Experimentation is how change happens, and that applies to all acts of creation and destruction. Film, plays, performance art, and podcasts.
5. While SKS leaves us with unanswered questions, you have also had success solving cold cases in the past. Your 2007 documentary Mississippi Cold Case and 2011’s Confession to Murder both resulted in convictions. What was it like for you in the moment when you saw your work ensure justice could be served, and wounds potentially start to heal?
It’s a validation for sure. Process is as important as end result here. “Healing” is subjective. Some say “closure” is impossible. Does finding justice in a courtroom actually make a difference in the day to day life of a family member who has lost someone? Of course. But I’d say that playing a direct role in trying to find justice can make as much of a difference.
6. Followers of the podcast are very passionate about the cases you present, as evidenced by lively online and offline discussions. You offer updates whenever possible, which reinvigorates these conversations. How long do you plan to pursue these cases?
Each case becomes like a member of my family. Each family connected to each case becomes like my siblings. Like my own blood family, I will never give up on the cases, despite long stretches of time between contact.