How do you make a documentary about a murder case when nobody knows who did it? Filmmakers sometimes put inverted commas around ‘guilty’ and frame their investigations from the perspective of proving a wrongly convicted person innocent, or possibly innocent – recently in the popular Making a Murderer, but more memorably in Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line and the Paradise Lost trilogy.
This wasn’t an option for Australian director Kitty Green’s brilliant Casting JonBenet, a Netflix acquisition (premiering April 28) that explores in cunningly roundabout ways the 1996 murder – still unsolved – of six year-old beauty pageant star JonBenet Ramsey. The case remains a tabloid and ratings sensation, evidenced in a recent three-part interview conducted by the parasitic Dr Phil with the deceased girl’s brother Burke, timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of JonBenet’s death.
Style and methodology in murder documentaries vary, but at least one thing is considered a given: that the filmmaker will seek out interviews with people who knew the parties involved – or are experts on matters raised by the case – and incorporate their voices.
This is an ingenious film, destined to keep people talking for decades.
Pulling off a major, audacious step up from her debut feature-length film Ukraine is Not a Brothel, Green doesn’t do that. Instead she finds local actors from Boulder, Colorado (where the murder happened) who don’t know the Ramseys from a bar of soap. They’re keen as punch to talk about them at length, nevertheless, including what may or may not have been going through their minds, and what each member of the family may or may not have done.
These actors front the camera to audition for various roles (from JonBenet herself to her mother, father and brother) presumably without knowing the film they are auditioning for will be almost entirely comprised of their audition tapes. So there is no film, but there sort of is. It’s a stunning concept.It’s a means for the director to explore questions larger than this or any case: how people share, arrange and reason the dramas and tragedies of other lives.
Fascinatingly, patterns begin to emerge in the actors/interviewees’ responses, which get more sensational as time goes on – including speculation about JonBenet’s potential entrapment in a child sex ring and the suggestion a local department store Santa might have done it. The latter leads Green to sit down with a bunch of actual Santas, in full getup. One says the reason they wear white gloves is so the location of their hands can be easily identifiable in photographs. It’s a moment – and there are several – when the audience is caught between wanting to laugh and wanting to cry.
In director Shirley Clarke’s unforgettable 1967 experimental documentary Portrait of Jason, a charismatic hustler and chronic shit-spinner (the only person we see in a 105 minute running time) gets increasingly drunk as he regales the audience with tales, tall and otherwise, in the lead up to what might be considered a mental breakdown. Clarke knew what she was doing by putting “portrait” in the title: this is just one image of her chameleon-like subject, and not necessarily right or wrong.
Casting JonBenet is an instant classic, and likely to be the best documentary of 2017.
The first word in the title of Casting JonBenet operates on a similar level, signposting the film as a work concerned with process and artifice rather than a quest for truth or justice, or any such noble pursuits. Make no mistake: this is an ingenious film, destined to keep people talking for decades.
The rich compositions of cinematographer Michael Latham, boosted by Leah Popple’s superb production design, remain the same as the actors change. Different people in quick succession sit on the same piece of furniture positioned in the same way: a slightly creepy effect, making the point that every participant appears only in the context of somebody – or something – else.
The bad dream beauty of Green’s aesthetic has a fantastically wet, dripping atmosphere that washes over everything. The quasi-doco format is interspersed with short and moody snippets of re-enactments, revealing tantalisingly brief visions of the more conventional film – with sets and actors reciting lines – that never was. Green deconstructs these moments through behind-the-scenes images of the cast, in costume, buzzing around on soundstages, recalling writer/director’s Charlie Kaufman’s self-reflexive head trip Synecdoche New York.
I wouldn’t be surprised if these soundstages were fake ones built on actual soundstages, or if the cast were ‘real’ actors playing applicants. So, how do you make a documentary about a murder case when nobody knows who did it? I’m tempted to say “like this”. But Casting JonBenet – an instant classic, and likely to be the best documentary of 2017 – feels like a once-off.
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