Six-year-old JonBenét Ramsey was murdered in her home in Boulder, Colorado, sometime late on Dec. 25 or in the early hours of Dec. 26, 1996.
Now, 20 years and some months later, her unsolved murder has been the subject of numerous articles, books and television specials. The latest addition to the genre is Netflix’s newest documentary, “Casting JonBenét,” which doesn’t concern itself with actually trying to solve the murder of the miniature blond beauty queen. In fact, no new evidence is uncovered and no forensic experts were interviewed for the project. Instead, the film explores JonBenét’s tragic death through the audition tapes of mostly amateur Colorado-based actors, who offer their insight, theories, judgments and personal experiences.
The film’s director, Kitty Green, grew up in Australia, where she was “obsessed” with American television and sitcom fantasy families when Ramsay died.
“I had never seen a beauty pageant or even heard of a beauty pageant before, so it was so foreign,” she told HuffPost in an interview on Friday, when the film began streaming on Netflix. “It was a uniquely American phenomenon and I was captivated by how odd it was, how dark it was and how it kind of punctured this image I had of idyllic American life.”
Those who grew up in the ‘90s will likely relate to Green’s earliest memories of the case.
“I mean, it was the imagery associated with it, which was all the pageants and crowns and the dress and the feather outfits that she was put in,” she said.”I think those images were really haunting. So it was almost like this image of this pageant queen who almost seemed to have it all, but whose life went horribly wrong, or horrifically had it taken away from her.”
Green’s fascination with the case ended up being a lasting one. Whenever she would meet someone from Colorado, she couldn’t help but ask who they thought was responsible for JonBenét’s murder. Their varied responses piqued her interest.
Before making the film, Green said she read every book and watched every TV special on the case. She came to the conclusion that trying to find JonBenét’s killer was futile and decided she didn’t want to make another true crime documentary.
“I knew there’s no way we can solve this,” she said. “There’s absolutely no way we can find out who killed her. So my motivation became an entirely different thing. If we can’t solve the crime, then how do we deal with the idea that we will never know?”
Green said that she’s more interested in the remaining ambiguity and the mystery that haunts the public as the case remains unsolved, and believes the casting-tape framework employed in the film allows for the actors to “talk about how it affected them emotionally and personally and they can draw parallels with their own lives and look at the way that they kind of digest this tabloid material and true crime films.”
In the course of the film, multiple actors audition for the roles the members of the Ramsay family, as well as local law enforcement and other suspects. It’s through these auditions that these actors reveal their own theories and personal experiences that they believe better inform them to portray the character ― like one actress whose brother had been murdered and spoke of understanding how people might react to the sudden loss of a loved one in different manners.
“I always knew we’d get stories out of people, but I was amazed at the level of honesty and some of the stories were so heartbreaking and it was an incredible experience and a privilege to be in the room with them. I guess I didn’t expect that level of raw emotional humanity that we got,” she said.
Since “Casting JonBenét” doesn’t offer any answers, it’s easy to see why it might be construed as exploitative ― not just of the 20-year-old cold case, but of the actors and their own stories. But everything is up for the viewer to decide.
“We’re looking at the way people speculate. The way people jump to conclusions,” Green explained, later adding that the film is about “human experience.”
When asked what she hopes viewers will take away from watching her film, she hesitated, and then recalled a time when someone approached her after a screening.
“They had read everything about the case for the last 20 years ―every article, watched every special ― but this was the first time they actually felt anything or felt any empathy for this family and the loss of life,” Green said. “And if they can feel the gravity of what happened in that town, if [the film] can humanize this whole case for people in some way, that would be really fabulous.”
“Casting JonBenét” is now streaming on Netflix.