Kitty Green’s ‘Casting JonBenet’ is a boundary-pushing film with a mix of interviews, confessionals and reenactments – we speak to the director about truth, performance and smalltown trauma
A dolled up, six-year-old pageant queen from a sleepy town found strangled to death in the basement of her home over the Christmas holidays. In the immediate aftermath of the O.J. Simpson trial, America’s round-the-clock news cycle jumped on the 1996 tragedy of JonBenet Ramsey to rehash its most lurid and prurient details on loop: a National Teen Miss Beauty whose own parents or brother might have killed her, a suspicious Santa Claus impersonator, a baffling 3-page ransom note and a smorgasbord of conspiracy theories. The saddest part? America’s quintessential true crime mystery remains unresolved more than twenty years later.
Thankfully, Australian filmmaker Kitty Green’s unsettling Casting JonBenet doesn’t follow in the footsteps of countless TV specials. Instead, Green turns her attention away from the family and onto the community that’s lived in the shadow of a mass media trauma. We’ve seen towns grapple with the aftermath of unwanted press attention in the past — for instance, The Laramie Project, about the Wyoming community digesting the news that one of the U.S.’s most high-profile anti-gay hate crimes (Matthew Shepard) took place in their peaceful town.
But Casting JonBenet takes a more formally adventurous route. A docufiction mix of casting call confessionals and cinematic re-enactments of a family in mourning, Green calls upon 70+ semi/non-professionals from Boulder, Colorado to audition for the roles of various Ramseys. Through sharing town gossip and their two cents on the tragedy, the actors also reflect on how challenging events in their own lives have coloured their understanding of the JonBenet case. It’s a brilliant (and timely) reminder about the malleability of truth, the sway of subjectivities and nature of performance. With the film just out on Netflix, we rang up Green (who also directed Femen documentary Ukraine is Not A Brothel) to chat about Lynchian parallels, documentary ethics and the vilification of Patsy Ramsey.
You’re in Australia, I’m in Canada – both are worlds removed from the uniquely American culture of child pageantry. And yet this small-town, true crime story transfixed us all the same. Why do you think JonBenet’s murder captured the attention of the world?
Kitty Green: It happened during Christmas in Colorado, so it was my summer vacation in Australia, and I remember I was home every day, watching the news. I didn’t know anything about the pageant system, like you said, that’s a uniquely American phenomenon and I was fascinated. Also, I’ve only ever seen those idealised American families on television, like The Brady Bunch and Full House. I think this story punctured the picture-perfect image of the American family I’d always had. I was an innately, even morbidly curious 11-year-old wanting to understand what had gone so wrong there.
The Ramseys checked off so many boxes of the perfect, picture-frame-worthy American family, and yet cracks in their story suggested a more sinister underbelly. It feels almost clichéd to say, but it’s all pretty Lynchian, no?
Kitty Green: Oh yeah. There’s something about this case that’s weird in a Twin Peaks kind of way: it’s got pageantry, a 6 year-old, it’s Christmas night, the family’s a suspect – and there’s a Santa Claus impersonator, too. I mean, you can’t write this stuff. I think it’s also a very personal story, which we can all relate to, as mothers, fathers, brothers or sisters. There are a few things going on there, which have led us to not being able to let it go essentially for 20 years. I mean, she’s still on the cover of magazines all these years later, which is insane.
Indeed, the media coverage has never let up. There’s such an overwhelming amount of accounts and theories, which were given a grim, 20th-anniversary boost recently care of a Dr. Phil interview with the brother. How much of this stuff did you revisit?
Kitty Green: I consumed all of it, from the books to the specials uploaded to YouTube. But then when I started interviewing people, they put me to shame with their level of knowledge and detail. So I had to do a whole other round of binging to keep up if not stay ahead of my interview subjects. But, I mean, I get sucked into these true crime stories the way everyone else does. I guess I wanted to understand our obsession and addiction with true crime, and that became interesting to me. The legacy of the JonBenet case became the focus more so than the whodunit aspect.
“It was all a bit of an experiment, and they were happy to jump down the rabbit hole with us. It almost became a community theatre project” – Kitty Green
You talk of working with the local actors as a very collaborative process, and the credits suggest a certain ambiguity in what’s performance and what isn’t. How important was it that your talent be fully aware of what they were signing on for?
Kitty Green: Very. We needed their trust in order to make this film. We posted these vague casting calls and when people came in, I would give them a 15-minute rundown of how I saw this material being used. The casting tapes, the re-enactments. But it was difficult for them to imagine, as there was nothing like it other than a short film I made [The Face of Ukraine: Casting Oksana Baiul] using the same structural conceit. We found a really good group of parents and children who trusted us and Googled us to make sure our intentions were right. It was all a bit of an experiment, and they were happy to jump down the rabbit hole with us. It almost became a community theatre project, where we were working on this big stage, with 20-30 people all simultaneously playing.
A lot of your cast members share painful memories of trauma, abuse or hardships, giving the film its moments of group therapy. Were you looking to cast a particular type of person, beyond them being locals?
Kitty Green: Not really, I was more interested in the community as a whole. How they made sense of something that had no answers, how they moved forward in the face of something that’s essentially unsolvable. We were interested in a variety of people, opinions and theories, so we tried to get as many different types of people for each role as we could. I think we met 200 people in the end, and 72 of them are in the film. It was just a real mix. For the role of Patsy, for instance, we approached pageant moms, but also former beauty queens, actresses and local women. We didn’t have many rules. We had a pretty clear idea of the structure going in, but the surprising thing for us was how emotional it got. How real, authentic and raw these people’s stories were.
Many share quite unusual theories about how JonBenet died. It almost feels like they’re playing Cluedo, matching up the brother in the kitchen with the flashlight. Were you surprised at how convinced they seemed to be of their hypotheses?
Kitty Green: I’ve interviewed 200 people, I’ve read every book, and I can tell you there’s no way this case will be solved anytime soon. So when you’re living in this narrative that doesn’t have an ending, you have to find closure, and I guess they do that by coming up with their own stories. It allows them to accept it, to move past it. These are the stories we tell ourselves in the face of the unknowable. People generally want everything to be tied up with a bow, to go on with their lives. When there’s still a question mark, they find that difficult.
“There’s something about this case that’s weird in a Twin Peaks kind of way: it’s got pageantry, a 6 year-old, it’s Christmas night, the family’s a suspect – and there’s a Santa Claus impersonator” – Kitty Green
You also hinted at the misogyny experienced by the late Patsy Ramsey – who was cleared by touch DNA evidence in 2008 – and how she remains so vilified in the court of public opinion. Why do you think she’s always been public enemy #1?
Kitty Green: Patsy was immediately judged in the community and all over the world as a pageant mother and a former beauty queen. I think a lot of that goes back to how women are portrayed in the media. Almost everyone we interviewed would have some kind of speculation about her. They would judge her based on hearsay or the tabloid press, without knowing that much about her. Ever since film school, I’ve made films about women and their representation in the media, so my interest in the Ramsey case probably connects with that. I wanted to make sure we explored that and also the way JonBenet’s image was overexploited. I made sure we didn’t use archival footage of JonBenet spinning on a catwalk, for instance, because I felt like that had been played millions of times. She’s not in the film an awful lot. When she is, it’s a ghostly presence that hits you hard because suddenly you remember what it’s all about. Beyond all the gossip and speculation, here’s this 6-year-old girl who lost her life, which is tragic.
There have been so many defamation suits brought against media outlets, and a general sense the press has indulged in tawdry takes and sensationalistic exposés. How complicit has the media been in mythologising the tragedy?
Kitty Green: Sure, they’ve played a part, but I think the media keep recycling this story because the public is fascinated by it and cannot let it go. Why are we so obsessed and addicted to it? I think it has to do with how we connect our own experiences of grief and trauma to these true crime murder cases. The media rehashes JonBenet because we keep watching. So the press is to blame, but so are we.
Casting JonBenet is out now on Netflix