the unconventional doc exploring the unsolved murder of a child beauty pageant queen
On Christmas Day 1996 the murder of JonBenét Ramsey, a six-year-old beauty queen, shocked America. Kitty Green’s new film lifts the lid on the sordid episode...
First, the facts.
On the night of 25 December, 1996, JonBenét Patricia Ramsey was killed in her own home. She was six years old, a blue-eyed beauty pageant queen from Boulder, Colorado. The following morning a ransom note was found and she was reported missing. Eight hours later, JonBenét's father discovered her body in the basement. She had been strangled with a garrote, her skull broken from a blow to her head. The official cause of death was asphyxia by strangulation.
To this day the case remains unsolved. One theory is that there was an intruder, perhaps a pedophile obsessed with the young beauty pageant queen. Another is that the mum did it in a fit of rage after JonBenét wet the bed. Another is that JonBenét's nine-year-old brother Burke did it and then the family covered it up with the ransom note. There are many wild theories, and just as many sensational documentaries. The latest, however, is not about pointing the finger. Kitty Green's Casting JonBenét -- made 20 years after the murder -- puts the true-crime whodunit in the blender. Over the phone she explains how she was more interested in the impact of the case on the local community, how people came to terms with an unsolvable case, and why we're all so obsessed with true-crime stories like this.
What made you return to this tragic story 20 years after JonBenét's murder?
I think I was 11 or 12 in Australia when it happened. It was so foreign, the pageant industry, I'd never seen anything like it. I was fascinated by it and didn't let it go. Whenever I met someone from Colorado I'd be asking, "Who killed JonBenét Ramsey?" And I got some weird and wild theories. Then eventually it seemed like one of those things where you can get a film made if there's a reason; so the 20th anniversary of her death, as horrific as that sounds, became a reason.
There's a bunch of sensational videos on YouTube about the murder, but you didn't want to do the usual timeline of events with expert opinions, did you?
No, that's already been done. We weren't interested in that. I was more interested in the community that had lived in the shadow of that crime, the mythology and the legacy of JonBenét Ramsay. I was more interested in cultural obsession in the US -- and globally -- with this case, and why we can't let it go. It's 20 years later and she's still on the cover of tabloid magazines, which is crazy!
At the same time, you show all the conflicting theories. In the back of your mind, did you think there might be a chance of uprooting a buried truth, or were you 100% 'this isn't gonna lead to anything'?
I've actually never been asked that. I went in open-minded, thinking, "I want to listen to what these people have to say about this crime". I just let them speak. After interviewing 200 people I felt no closer to the truth, it seemed further and further away. So I wasn't really searching for it but in the back of my mind I guess I was. I never got closer, to be honest. I just can't see a way of this case being solved, and I guess that's sort of the point we're making in the film.
What part do you think the culture of young beauty pageants played in all this?
I've always found them interesting. They're a uniquely American phenomenon. I find them intriguing, just in the roles women and children play in these pageants and why they get involved. The glitz and glamour of that is part of the reason why people haven't been able to let this case go. It has this bizarre angle. It's part of why she's become this posthumous cultural icon, because of all these tapes of her in her pageant outfits. It's a big part of the case so it became a big part of the film, and I did a lot of research. I went to a lot of those pageants and checked them out, and it's an odd world.
Pictures of JonBenét as a beauty pageant were splashed all over the tabloids. How do you think that shaped public opinion?
The mother was vilified straight off the bat, and I think that was because of the pageant tapes. Everyone assuming that if you have your daughter in those sorts of pageants then you must be a terrible mother and you're obviously a murderer, which is an insane conclusion to jump to. I think it was all part of it. What I was interested in -- all of my films are about women and their representations in the media -- is how the press viewed Patsy [the mother]. Everyone judged her so negatively so quickly and that was fascinating to me.
How can the local community find closure in something that can't really be closed?
I'm interested in why we're so obsessed with it, and if we can pinpoint why we're so obsessed with who did it, then often you can link it back to something in your life or something personal that happened to you. The film is about how we internalise things and then strip them out in their way in order to make sense of it.
There's been a surge in true-crime docs recently, with Making a Murderer and the OJ doc. The filmmakers behind them have talked about their work as investigative journalism. Do you see what you do as very separate from that?
We don't consider ourselves a true-crime film, but I get addicted to those true-crime stories the way anyone else does. I get sucked in. At the same time we're looking at why we do get so obsessed with these shows, and what is it about these true-crime stories that fascinates us. That's more our interest than any sort of investigative angle.
Text Oliver Lunn