The whole world knows the facts of the case: On Dec 26, 1996, the body of 6-year-old JonBenét Ramsey was found bludgeoned in the basement of her family's home in Boulder, Colo. The gruesome discovery happened mere hours after her parents reported the girl as missing. A long, rambling ransom note, written on paper that originated inside the house, was also discovered.
More than two decades later, the unsolved murder of JonBenét, a child beauty queen, remains a pop-culture and true-crime obsession. Last year, to mark the 20th anniversary of the crime, there were several TV productions. JonBenét: An American Murder Mystery and The Killing of JonBenét: The Truth Uncovered, competed for attention. And a three-part interview on Dr. Phil with Burke Ramsey, JonBenét's brother, got huge attention.
The strangest, most unnerving and, indeed, thoughtful approach to the case is currently streaming on Netflix. That's Casting JonBenét, which is neither ghoulish nor exploitive. It's a documentary made by Australian filmmaker Kitty Green. The young documentarian has said about the project, "Why are we obsessed with this case in particular? Why can't people let it go? The cultural history and the mythology interested me more so than the whodunit."
Her approach is unique. She used it first in the extraordinary short film The Face of Ukraine: Casting Oksana Baiul. In that, Green illustrated issues of gender inequality, notions of heroism and beauty and strength, by inviting girls from all over Ukraine to play Baiul, the legendary figure skater. Green wasn't making a doc or a movie about Baiul; she was collecting the impressions, stories and yearnings of the women, young and older, who wanted to play her.
In Casting JonBenét, she uses the same sideways, theatrical technique. And it is stunningly revealing. It does not attempt to solve the case. It simply gives voice to the people who live where the crime took place.
It's a lavishly textured portrait of a community still dealing with an unsolved child-murder and obsessing about it. Green went to Boulder and advertised for local actors, professional or amateur, to audition for roles in a possible movie about the case. There was to be no movie in the traditional sense. Casting JonBenét is the audition tapes of dozens of people who talk freely about their pet theories and their connections to the case. Some are unguarded, others are utterly obsessed, some have personal connection to the Ramsey family and all are either knowledgeable about the known facts or knowledgeable about the myth and rumour.
The result is disconcerting. Of the almost 200 locals who Green interviewed, most took a dim view of JonBenét's mother Patsy. Their views are often based on the most flimsy of impressions – a few minutes of Patsy seen on Larry King's show on CNN, a rumour about Patsy saying she was jealous of her child. Sometimes they judge vehemently, basing judgment on an occasion, which they've merely heard about, when Patsy smiled.
What emerges first is the sheer loquaciousness of the locals. They have tons to say. They sit down and just start talking. First, about themselves. Some are anxious to point out their personal acquaintance with the Ramsey family. One guy is anxious to have it noted that he is also a felon, "from fighting the IRS." One woman, auditioning to play Patsy, implies she's just right for the role by pointing out, "I'm usually cast as the loving mom. Or the bitch."
All have theories about who killed JonBenét, and why. Many claim there was a cover-up. One person blithely suggests JonBenét's mother killed the girl after discovering her husband sexually molesting her. As if this were known to all and sundry, but had been covered up. Yet, another person hypothesizes that there was some sort of cosmic revenge at work when Patsy died of ovarian cancer in 2006 – her "coldness" and treatment of her daughter resulted in the mother being stricken by cancer.
The community revealed in the doc is also very familiar with pageant culture. In fact, a woman auditioning for the Patsy role wants it noted that she participated in The Mrs. Colorado Pageant. Many are also near-experts on the topic of satanic cults. Alarmingly, the fact that Patsy and John Ramsey were cleared by DNA evidence in 2008 means little in the community.
What the viewer takes away is a personal matter. No overriding theory is presented. Nothing conclusive is offered about suspects. It's just people talking and, in their talk, is a coolly distant depiction of a community and a way of life. As such, it says more about the obsession with the JonBenét Ramsey case than about the case itself.
In an interview with the Irish Times, Green said, "It's a film about individual interpretations, so I don't really want to impose a meaning on it. I'm interested in exploration, not conclusions. I went in with a very open mind, with more questions than answers, and I came out none the wiser."