Casting JonBenet: a true crime masterpiece that completely rejects the label | Documentary films

Netflix’s synopsis for this staggeringly good 2017 documentary reads: “A mystery shrouded in myth and memory. And countless voices weigh in on what ‘really’ happened.”

Those quotes around “really” speak to Casting JonBenet’s key message: No one can deliver a truthful account of the unsolved murder of six-year-old child beauty pageant queen JonBenét Ramsey, found dead in the basement of her Boulder home, Colorado. in 1996. Casting JonBenet, which is for my money the biggest true crime production to date, acknowledges that the interviewees, the director, Kitty Green, and, in fact, pretty much everyone in the world, don’t know what really happened in the Ramsey’s basement what a day.

JonBenet’s choice reflects an argument once advocated by Buckminster Fuller: “’Reality’ should always be in quotes”; also, Green might reason, it should be the “true” in “true crime.” The Australian filmmaker (whose work includes the masterful #MeToo drama The Assistant) questions the very foundations of the genre by seeing the phenomenon in this case as the manifestation of a human impulse as old as time: oral storytelling. Since we began to gather around campfires, narrativization has transformed reality into legend and people into myths.

The documentary begins with a shot of empty chairs, soon occupied by young girls in identical outfits, dressed as JonBenét. The actors who appear throughout the runtime are not presented exactly as themselves, nor entirely as other characters: they are auditioning for roles in a production about the murder of JonBenét, unaware that the footage from their audition will form the crux of the film. the movie they create. will do later.

These actors don’t just read lines, they go on and on and on about the details of the case, offering endless commentary on everything about it: possible suspects, the ransom note found at the crime scene, the character and the temperament of JonBenét’s family. – all as if his views on these issues mattered.

Amidst this avalanche of gossip and speculation, a woman auditioning for the role of Patsy, JonBenét’s mother, mentions a man dressed as Santa at a party attended by the family and suggests that “maybe I could have done”. Green then moves on to a spirited series of interviews with department store Santas, one of whom claims that his profession evokes a kind of nirvana: “You get addicted to love very quickly…it’s more addictive than heroin.” .

This hilarious moment may seem superfluous, but it highlights a path followed in various storytelling professions, from journalism to academia to law enforcement: taking the lead, following through, putting together a narrative, and following a logical path to a potentially absurd conclusion.

In another interview, an actor, who claims to be a “fugitive recovery agent” by day and a sex educator by night, reveals, for no apparent reason, his sexual peccadilloes, such as his love of “breast torture” and “whipped nipples” In a different production, this moment might seem ridiculously incongruous, but here’s a point: this weirdo’s bedroom musings are just as valid, or invalid, as these people’s uninformed comments about this murder. It’s all just content: more information to rearrange in a never-ending search for order in a continuously chaotic universe.

Casting JonBenet contains many metamoments, none more so than the scenes of multiple actors playing the same set and playing the same characters on clearly artificial sets. When the men auditioning for the role of John Ramsey, JonBenét’s father, reenact the moment he found the body of his daughter, a variety of possible emotional responses are explored: an actor cries silently; one gasps and struggles to contain himself; another sobs loudly. It is a powerful reminder of the fiction inherent in any kind of dramatization. When artists claim that their work is “based on a true story,” what they really mean is that they have sought emotional truth, rather than accomplished the impossible task of recreating real events.

Particularly in its final moments, Casting JonBenet adopts some of the self-reflective spirit of Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, a brilliantly sad and surreal image about a theater director (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who builds a huge soundstage and recruits actors to live and play. act there while blurring the line between life and artistic artifice. Like Kaufman, but with a flair and sass all his own, Green dismisses the idea that human performances simultaneously build and dismantle reality, or perhaps that’s what I should say “reality.”

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