“There are levels of fiction everywhere”
An interview with Kitty Green, director of Casting JonBenet
A sly and stylized exploration of the world’s most sensational child-murder case, Casting JonBenet examines the still unsolved death of six-year-old American beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey. But rather than a make another true-crime docudrama, award-winning Australian filmmaker Kitty Green spent over a year in the Ramseys’ Colorado hometown, eliciting responses and reflections as well as auditions and performances from the local community for a faux-narrative film. Called “brilliant,” “audacious” and “utterly magnificent” (The Guardian) and “a biting indictment of our age of true-crime tragedytainment (Rolling Stone), Casting JonBenet may be the year’s most original documentary. DOC10’s Anthony Kaufman spoke with Green about getting her subjects’ trust, the boundaries of documentary and fiction, and humanizing a tabloid story.
What do you say to people curious about this film who are specifically interested in finding out about the murder mystery at its core?
This isn’t the film for them. That’s the basic answer. If they’re interested in the murder mystery and finding out who did it, there’s lots of other movies out there that you can watch, but that was never our interest with this project. But that doesn’t mean they won’t enjoy it, and maybe they’ll discover why they’re interested in this story.
The JonBenet Ramsay story is very much an American story, and of a very particular kind of small-town American story, so I was curious to know how you approached it as someone who is not an American. Do you think your status as an outsider affected the film?
Growing up in Australia, the pageant world was so foreign to me, but I was really curious about what it entails, and the roles of the women and the children were fascinating to me. I’ve also always been intrigued by this idyllic American smalltown that we all see in the movies. I love the idea of what’s lurking behind these picturesque exteriors and what’s going on beneath the surface. I think it helped being a foreigner because they were happy to open up more to a person who wasn’t from there, explaining the case to me from beginning to end. They were like “Why does this Australian want to know about this case?” So they would talk and talk and we had this wealth of material.
And how do you think it affected your relationships with the subjects of the film? Were they—or were you—ever concerned that you might not be representing them fairly?
We explained to them the whole process. Nobody was tricked into what it was. They didn’t have a firm picture of what it would be, because there aren’t really other films that do this, but they had trust in us, and they were excited to be part of the experiment. It really felt like an ensemble piece. And I was always very honest about what I wanted from the project: that it was not exploitive or sensationalistic, but it was about the community and their personal connections to the story and their individual interpretations about what happened, and their narratives to deal with the loss. It was also a small crew, and we’re all Australian and sweet, so we created a safe place for them to talk.
You obviously have a strong interest in the representation of young girls. reflected in both your terrific short, “The Face of Ukraine: Casting Oksana Baiul,” and now the feature Casting JonBenet. Can you speak about why you think you've returned to these images in subsequent film projects?
All of my films, ever since film school, have been about women and gender and media representations. My mother is a photographer, and she does a lot of work about feminism and domesticity, so I grew up around that. And I guess you write about what you know. I was a young girl, too. And there’s also not enough women making movies about young women, so the more we have women telling stories about women rather than men, all the better.
What's so fascinating about these films is the kind of tangle between fiction and documentary, acting and realness. I love the way that this powerful emotion truth comes out of moments that are completely "staged." So I guess my question here is what do you think of this division between fiction and nonfiction, and what is your interest in melding the two?
Casting JonBenet is a nonfiction film. It’s a documentary, and we need to be clear about that. Everything that comes out of these people’s mouths are real words; they’re not scripted. We have cinematic sequences where they’re enacting scenes, but they’re often doing it with their own personal experiences and interpretations, so it’s they’re reimagining of it. The confusing thing is as soon as you pull out a camera, it’s essentially a performance. There’s a level of performance in documentaries that we’re often not aware of, so there are levels of fiction everywhere. But it’s not often pointed to. So I think we’re playing with the nonfiction space, of what it can be, and what the boundaries are. But the most important thing for me is that we have these real raw emotional moments. We wanted to humanize this crazy tabloid story—to make it about more about the loss of life, rather than this sensationalistic whodunit. So we’re really stripping all that back and focusing on questions of grief and how do we move forward.