Wednesday 23 August 2017

What is Casting JonBenet and why is it making people uncomfortable?

Documentary: One of the young actresses in Netflix’s CastingJonBenét Ramsey
Documentary: One of the young actresses in Netflix’s CastingJonBenét Ramsey

Rebecca Hawkes

Over 20 years ago, during the Christmas holiday of 1996, a six-year-old child, JonBenét Ramsey, was murdered. Her bludgeoned, strangled body was found on December 26 in the cellar of her family home in Boulder, Colorado.

The crime has never been solved, but in the weeks and years that followed the tragedy, the case became a media sensation, with coverage to rival that devoted to the notorious OJ Simpson trial in 1995.

Kitty Green's acclaimed new documentary film Casting JonBenét, which shows amateur actors from the town where the murder occurred taking part in staged reenactments of the case, is released tomorrow on Netflix.

But just why did the crime attract such a high level of public interest in the first place – and is Green's film a skilled examination of the ongoing public obsession with Ramsey, or simply part of the same tasteless problem?

What happened in the JonBenét Ramsey case?

After the discovery of their daughter's body, the victim's parents, John Bennet Ramsey and Patricia "Patsy" Ramsey, were seen by many as the prime suspects in the case, but maintained that their daughter must have been killed by an intruder in a botched kidnapping.

NWS_20131026_WOR_033_29411453_I2.JPG
JonBenet

A ransom note, later found to have been written on paper taken from the Ramsey home, was also found. (The provenance of the paper doesn't necessarily indicate guilt on the part of JonBenét's parents: the killer may have written the note while hiding in the family home.)

In 1999, there was a move to charge the couple for child abuse and murder, but Alex Hunter, the Boulder District Attorney, refused to sign the indictment, on the grounds that there was not sufficient evidence to do so.

And in 2008, new findings appeared to clear the Ramseys: forensic tests revealed that DNA belonging to an unidentified male, not a member of the family (or any of the investigating police officers) had been found on JonBenét's body.

ramsey.jpg
John and Patsy Ramsey were indicted for the murder of daughter JonBenet

Afterwards, John Ramsey spoke out about the pain that his family had endured.

"It's hard for people to accept and think that someone could come into a home and murder a child from their bed and we were perhaps an answer," he said. "It became an entertainment event for a lot of the media, sadly...It boosted ratings, attracted viewers, to develop that controversy."

"You know the pain, the intense pain that we felt was the loss of our child. The accusations and the finger pointing weren't significant. We were deeply crushed by the loss of our child, particularly in the manner that it happened."

His wife, Patsy, had died of ovarian cancer in 2006.

Why were people so fascinated by the murder?

Disturbing as it seems, a large part of the media obsession with the case sprung from the fact that JonBenét was an attractive, photogenic child, who had participated in and won child beauty pageants in the past, including Little Miss Colorado, the Colorado State All-Star Kids Cover Girl and National Tiny Miss Beauty.

Images of the little girl taking part in pageants began to dominate the coverage, sparking debates about whether or not the events, in which competitors dress in grown-up gowns and wear makeup, sexualise children.

This reaction helped fuelled a growing public backlash against the Ramseys.

The journalist and Boulder resident Charlie Brennan, who covered the story when it first broke, has suggested that an element of snobbery may have also played a part in this.

“Boulder sees itself as a very sophisticated community and a lot of people figured that this whole spectacle was beneath them,” he told the Guardian in 2016. “The Ramseys had only moved to Boulder a few years earlier [from Georgia], and then the whole pageant thing came to light, which was something that was completely foreign to most people in Colorado and more associated with the deep south. So a lot of Boulderites felt: ‘This does not reflect us, they are not one of us.’”

Furthermore, because the murderer has never been found, conspiracy theorists across the years have essentially been given free reign to speculate about all the various suspects – and to suggest, again and again, that the rich, successful Ramseys may have "gotten away" with a brutal crime.

Who else has been suspected or accused of the crime?

In 2016, a forensic scientist named Dr Werner Spitz alleged, in a two-part CBS documentary, that the real killer may have been Ramsey's nine-year-old brother, Burke Ramsey. His parents, it was implied, staged the botched kidnapping to cover up their son's (most likely accidental) crime.

Burke Ramsey later sued Spitz and CBS for defamation.

“The accusations by Werner Spitz against this young man are outrageous,” his attorney, L. Lin Wood,  told People Magazine. “Such false accusations for self-promotion and profit have no place in an orderly and just society. This lawsuit is the first step to holding Spitz fully accountable for his heinous wrongdoing.”

In a telephone interview with The Telegraph, Wood added: "CBS's false and unprofessional attacks on this young man are disgusting and revolting."

Burke Ramsey himself, who can be seen in the Dr Phil clip below, has said that he believes a paedophile was responsible for his sister's murder.

The ongoing case was further complicated in 2006 when a 41-year-old man named John Mark Karr made a false confession of murder.

What is 'Casting JonBenét', and why are some people feeling uncomfortable about it?

In Casting JonBenét, which had its premiere at the Sundance film festival in Utah earlier this year, director Green tells the residents of Boulder that she is filming a reenacted documentary about the famous case. She then invites them to audition (or encourage their children to audition) for the roles of JonBenét, John, Patsy and Burke Ramsey, as well as a local police chief and a suspected paedophile.

Through filming these auditions, and encouraging the participants to speak about the case and share their theories across the course of 15 months,  she explores the impact that the crime had on local people at the time, and the nature of "public" murders, in which the concept of "the truth" becomes a twisted, amorphous, entirely subjective thing. The documentary received rave reviews after its premiere, and currently has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 100%.

It's difficult, however, to avoid some doubts about whether the film's treatment of a real life tragedy is entirely tasteful.

According to the reviews, some scenes are played for dark humour, while the film also features a sequence in which the young actors auditioning for the role of Burke violently shatter watermelons, to demonstrate whether or not they would have had the strength to smash JonBenet's skull.

2017-04-28_ent_30677051_I2.JPG
Documentary: One of the young actresses in Netflix’s CastingJonBenét Ramsey

Green, who used a similar "amateur auditions" technique in her previous short film The Face of Ukraine: Casting Oksana Baiul,  has described the set-up and use of local actors as "a beautiful way to explore all the suffering, pain and grief – the kind of things I'm interested in because I'm twisted".

"I thought how do you go about casting it, if you don't know if they're guilty, if you don't know if they're innocent?" she told an audience during a question and answer session at Sundance. "[The format] lends itself incredibly well to this. The cast knew what they were in for and they jumped down the rabbit hole with us. It was a big experiment for everyone."

Casting JonBenét is available now on Netflix

Telegraph.co.uk

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment