You Can Watch One of This Year's Best Documentaries Right Now On Netflix


Written by Oliver J. Hunt
28 Friday 28th April 2017

Netflix's Originals series has been somewhat disappointing so far, but it has produced what might be one of the most fascinating documentaries in recent years. With the current popularity of Errol Morris-esque sub-par true crime documentaries, Kitty Green’s docu-reenactment Casting JonBenet is a breath of much needed fresh air.

The pitch sounds like one of many true crime docs you’ve seen previously. In 1996, the unsolved death of six-year-old beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey hooked the general public, people who were hungry for more real life drama and mystery after OJ Simpson's televised murder trial (whose controversial acquittal has spawned numerous documentaries and televisual adaptations, like last year's The People vs. OJ Simpson). Since then, this voyeuristic desire has only developed with the growth of series like Making a Murderer and Serial. Everyone has an opinion on these cases and can act like a detective from the comfort of their home; it's this fascination with unsolved crimes that director Kitty Green is interested in exploring, instead of the actual case itself. Casting JonBenet subverts this macabre trend by elevating and evolving the formula Morris constructed with documentaries like The Thin Blue Line.

The contradiction in the unsolved true crime documentary sub-genre is the fact that the cases - of course - remain unsolved. So watching a ten hour-plus documentary like Making A Murderer actually solves very little in the long run and leaves an audience feeling dissatisfied and a little duped. These documentaries, aiming to entertain as much as inform, also encourage the layers of speculation and hear-say which made the cases challenging to solve in the first place. To counter this trend, however, Green has presented the stories surrounding the case with the personal accounts and opinions in the community of Boulder, Colorado who experienced the media frenzy when the story first broke.

Everyone has an opinion; some based on facts, others on little more than speculation. Instead of presenting the facts as truth, the format of the true crime sub-genre is skewed here. Green auditions dozens of professional and nonprofessional actors for the role as JonBenet Ramey’s parents Patricia and John who, we discover, were considered as suspects in the case. The same is true for the children of the family, with JonBenet and her older ten-year-old brother Burke being cast by several fresh faced child actors. With the auditionees being Boulder locals, their accounts of what occurred are more fascinating than the dry talking heads we are used to. In a case that is stranger than fiction, this surreal search for some sort of truth is far more engaging. Green knows the case cannot be solved by the court-of-public-opinion, so digs deeper in her ‘cast’ to examine how normal people could have their private lives ripped open and analysed by a community.

These auditions begin with line readings, as is the norm for any audition. The actors take the role pretty seriously too; some auditions are inspiring, others are cringe-inducing. All of them, however, build on the theme that these unfortunate circumstances could befall any of us. As this tension builds to a surreal climax, we begin to discover that amongst the participants, there are members who can empathise or condemn Patricia and John’s involvement with the death of their daughter.

This interest in solving the unsolvable is what truly makes Casting JonBenet a fascinating watch. Green is turning a mirror on the peripherals of murder cases, which is to say, the community of self-imposed jurors. We are guilty of this fact ourselves. Binge watching a documentary such as Making a Murder might be a weekend's worth of entertainment, but our collective macabre fascination and quick opinions on such cases are often cruel and misinformed. In a digital age, where media coverage and speculation are quickly digested, who is really able to know what truly happened on a cold November night in 1996?

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