Reflecting reality in "Casting JonBenet"
Everyone knows at least one: a person who can only process the details of a situation in front of them by thinking about the way it relates to them personally. They mightn’t be able to step into the same shoes, nor may they even want to, but they still have a story, a parallel or a link with whatever scenario, crime, scandal, dilemma or gossip they’re confronted with.
In fact, as Casting JonBenet demonstrates in the city of Boulder, Colorado, everyone knows more than one person who fits this bill. More than that, each and every one of us behaves in this manner, whether we realise it or not. When tragedy strikes and we react, even when we’re not intimately or even tangentially connected, our responses are coloured by our own lives and experiences. “I wanted to do that too,” we might say. “I’ve felt that way as well,” we might think. “I understand what she must’ve been thinking,” we proclaim. “That could’ve been me,” we mightn’t want to actually utter.
It’s those admissions that sit at the heart of Australian filmmaker Kitty Green’s second full-length documentary, with Casting JonBenet adopting a different approach to her acclaimed first effort Ukraine Is Not a Brothel while building on a style she first toyed with in her short The Face of Ukraine: Casting Oksana Baiul. Green travels to Boulder to discuss the murder of six-year-old child beauty pageant winner JonBenet Ramsey with members of the local community, then assembles much of the movie from their talking heads. They chat, reminisce and share their thoughts and feelings, which have understandably grown and evolved since the events in question in 1996. They all do so not out of a need to unburden themselves, though that urge becomes apparent quickly and convincingly, but as part of an audition for a film about the high-profile case.
Here, the factual combines with the first steps towards fictionalisation to create something new, and something arguably all the more powerful than a feature about JonBenet Ramsay made in either mode. Green isn’t concerned with rattling off facts or perfecting dramatised recreations; it’s opinions, emotions, perceptions and theories, not their accuracy or veracity, that’s actually at the forefront of the documentary. Indeed, her focus is honed on the act of interpretation as applied to something of clear significance to the would-be actors she enlists, and, thanks to widespread media attention spanning more than two decades, to the world.
To say that the result casts both the circumstances that inspired Casting JonBenet and the manner in which we process such events is an understatement, although it is the way that Green layers the two, as well as commentary upon the acting process and the age-old trend of turning real traumas into entertainment and spectacle, that hits home. As the many on-screen figures are preparing to play John Ramsey (JonBenet’s father), Patsy (her mother), Burke (her older brother), the girl herself, law enforcement officials and more —or endeavouring to convince Green that they are up to the task — the central, well-known incident motivates several to unleash their own past pain with increasing frankness. In their tales, as well as their tales about JonBenet’s tale, the ties that we make between what we see and read, how we react, and how we cope with life in general couldn’t be plainer, or more intriguing and intricate.
Largely plainly yet intimately and elegantly shot throughout, adorning the frame not with aesthetic flourishes but with earnest stories, Green offers glimpses of the auditions for the faux film-within-the-film throughout. They’re just as revealing as the main spectacle of speculation, loaded as they are with each actor’s baggage, though they remain a prelude to the Casting JonBenet’s finale. In a tracking shot that creeps around a set that replicates the Ramsey’s abode, everyone plays their part, all at once, offering snippets of various times and takes on the pivotal night when JonBenet’s life ended. Fact, fiction: it doesn’t matter; as in the documentary as a whole, what resonates once more is the impact of life filtered into such a stirring, striking interpretation.