THREE years ago, Australian director Kitty Green harnessed an unlikely – yet powerful – set of voices to shine a light on Ukrainian pride and hope at a time when the nation was under threat from Russia’s overbearing might. She spoke to a group of teenage girls in sequins and spandex.
The Face of Ukraine: Casting Oksana Baiul was an inventive and intimate short film concept that Green has since used as a template to flesh out a feature-length version.
Titled Casting JonBenet, the documentary starts with a similar image to Green’s 2015 short as a group of young girls line up for an audition. This time, however, the innocent girls are draped in the stars and stripes and preparing to audition for the more solemn role of JonBenet Ramsey, a six-year-old beauty pageant child who was infamously murdered in 1996.
Green’s documentary continues to look at the unsolved JonBenet murder case by casting numerous figures attached to the story – from parents Pasty and John to the Police Chief and potential suspects.
With this approach, Green runs parallel to the true-life story – gathering hearsay, memories and speculation from auditioning non-professional actors as they recant (some more vividly than others) the JonBenet story.
Early in the film, a group of middle-aged women audition for the role of Patsy Ramsey. Each helps to build a picture of Patsy – where they think she was in life, her relationship with JonBenet and what her motivations may have been as the killer.
Yet each actor brings their personal history and own interpretation of Patsy to the table. For example, one actor dresses differently to the others and explains that her evocation of pearls and an open collar are central to Patsy’s character. History, in this case, is in the eye of the many beholders.
This is a crime documentary unlike any you have seen before. There is no guiding narrative voice and Green never once shows us footage or photos of the true-life story. Such an approach means the film is more like we are sitting round a table gossiping rather than mulling over a detective’s evidence board.
This breeds a permissiveness not usually found in formulaic crime-docs as well as a level of spontaneity that allows one actor auditioning for the role of the Police Chief to talk about his evening job as a sex educator rather than the crime itself. He pulls out various sex toys and gives a demonstration – Green leaves it in the film.
At the start of the film one of the young girls auditioning for JonBenet asks the viewer: ‘Do you know who killed JonBenet Ramsey?’ Green’s film indirectly asks this to each of its subjects yet the film never seems intent on answering this question. Her subjects – and viewers – cannot.
Green is more interested in the ways we relate to these infamous crimes, how memories and our personal baggage affect our outlook, and our desire to seek answers or theories even when they are not there. From that unexpected angle, Casting JonBenet is a uniquely perceptive documentary.
This was review 26/30 in April’s Close-up Culture Monthly Film Challenge – Female Filmmakers.