The next piece in the ‘Wake In Light: On Australian Film’ series looks a new pseudo-documentary exploring modern myth-making, and the ways outsider filmmakers can show us our true selves.
‘I mean, the mother had to do it. She was about to turn forty, she was frustrated, her daughter wet the bed…’ So theorises one of the nameless actors auditioning for the role of Patsy Ramsey, joining countless others who have psychologised, projected, imagined and, in their minds, determined who killed Patsy’s daughter, six-year-old beauty queen JonBenét Ramsey in 1996.
Casting JonBenet is a fascinating film in the current of hybrid documentaries like The Act of Killing and Kate Plays Christine. Australian director Kitty Green’s concept is to audition townspeople in Boulder, Colorado (JonBenét’s hometown) to play Ramsey family members and police officers in a new film. We see clips from these audition tapes, which then morph into interviews as the townspeople, fully costumed on set, reveal their own hunches about the still-open investigation. These interviews begin to lapse into a film-within-a-film, creating a layered and experimental storytelling project that inhabits a beguiling grey zone between fictional and fact-based modes of cinema. Nobody really know where this mode of cinema is going and how it might develop next.
Green, who previously directed the documentary Ukraine is Not a Brothel (2013), isn’t really interested in who actually killed JonBenét. Her film, a Netflix Original production, is about how, with no real access to the truth, we instead build a picture around that absence. In Casting JonBenet, the tragedy of JonBenét’s death is palpable, but it matters less who killed the girl than the way the case has bounced around people’s heads for the last two decades.
The only way forward, in storytelling terms, is to find the cinematic mechanisms to construct a new narrative from the media detritus, from everyday people’s conflicting impressions of what might have happened. The ironic consequence is that by setting aside an objective notion of the truth, Green’s hybrid work is simultaneously more fantastical and closer to the truth than anything made with traditional documentary techniques.
Rather than reconstructing the evidence of the murder, Green builds her reverie from the speculations of Boulder’s townspeople, spoken directly to camera after the click of the clapperboard. In between line readings, while Green’s team apply make-up, fix lapel mikes and fluff hair, the auditionees cite the ‘weird’ coincidences that almost brought them into the Ramsey family’s orbit, falling over themselves to prove their own connections to the story. One brings along her old pageant photos (‘one thing I have in common [with JonBenét’s mother Patsy] is that we’re not the thin girl, we’re both a little heavier’). One draws on his experience in an amateur theatre company production of My Mother’s Jewish Lesbian Wiccan Wedding. Another can’t believe that he ‘had just moved here, literally weeks before’ the murder. Yet another uses that favourite American rhetorical device of ‘just asking questions’ to imply something without stating it: ‘Was Patsy detached? Did she ever really love her little girl?’
In Casting JonBenet…it matters less who killed the girl than the way the case has bounced around people’s heads for the last two decades.
Two actors auditioning for parents John and Patsy realise they’re Facebook friends. Others draw direct parallels between their own lives and the Ramseys’ to bolster their theories (‘I have personal experience with murder, my brother was actually murdered’), while drawing on their own parental guilt and exhaustion to empathise with their character and produce a better performance. They’re all proud of their status as up-and-coming actors, one decrying Patsy’s televised proclamation of innocence as ‘one of the poorest acting jobs I’ve ever seen.’
Sometimes their opportunism gets the better of them: ‘I’m auditioning for the part of police chief, but if I fit any other part perfectly I would be willing to take that, too.’ They are actors as vultures. The things they say sound as if they’ve been said a thousand times before: they have the well-worn grooves of gossip, folk tales spun with friends over endless cups of coffee, stolen grabs from news anchors’ soundbites.
At the centre of her film, Green constructs a powerful metaphor: the denial of wannabe actors, all convinced that they know and understand the murder case, speaking with blind yet total authority on the subject. Convinced they’re on the cusp of a career breakthrough and oblivious to their absence of talent, the motif of woeful actors perfectly encapsulates a wider, stranger phenomenon of American cluelessness.
The auditionees are so clearly bystanders, their headstrong opinions stained with the memories of two decades of speculation and media hype. Think of the absolute certainty with which people declared either the innocence or guilt of Michael Jackson during his paedophilia investigation. The truth is, of course, that none of us have any idea what goes on in these extraordinary high-profile criminal investigations. What matters is what you already believe, and what parallels you can draw between your personal life and the bigger fable as it grows.
What matters is what you already believe, and what parallels you can draw between your personal life and the bigger fable as it grows.
The only thing left to do is as Green does: to invest in the power of the mass myth. As both writer and director, she seems to know that she too will be accused of opportunism, as she was in the New York Times. She keeps her style and approach so precise and sparse that I was left wanting more expansion on the film-within-the-film. It’s like a CBS midday movie, accompanied by a schmaltzy string composition, a bridal typeface announcing the title and production design that appears to be straight out of Good Housekeeping Monthly (tiny ballet shoes stacked on one another, warm wall-lights, carefully arranged cushions on enormous beds). Establishing shots of the snowy Boulder mountains hark back to the perilous landscape of the Steven King thriller adaptation, Misery (1990), and while the film-within-the-film is presented in widescreen, whenever we snap back to the auditionees, we find ourselves in the boxy, claustrophobic 4:3 format.
The culminating sequence dramatises the various scenes of domestic dysfunction we’ve heard the auditionees recount: JonBenét wetting the bed, her mum gazing at rows of orange-bottled pharmaceuticals, her brother waking up John and Patsy in the middle of the night, Patsy sobbing (I mean really sobbing) on the bathroom floor. Finally, we devolve into a hysterical collective imagining: all the actors are put on set, screaming, yelling, arguing, crying, as the camera tracks slowly, deliberately past like a midnight intruder, as they enact myriad possibilities simultaneously. It’s a virtuosic piece of filmmaking.
Kitty Green lives and works in Melbourne. But in telling a quintessentially American story, does Casting JonBenet qualify as an Australian film? The very definition is growing increasingly nebulous. We tend to think of Australian films as ones that capture some essential truth about this country’s national character: we think of the films of the industry’s 1970s renaissance; of the trashy Ozploitation movies of the 1980s; of those with quintessentially Australian subject matter like Mad Max and Picnic At Hanging Rock; even the more recent wave of horror films set in the outback like Wolf Creek; we think of filmmaking tendencies and eras and genres and directors’ bodies of work.
In telling a quintessentially American story, does Casting JonBenet qualify as an Australian film?
In recent years, a blend of parochialism, globalisation and industrial pragmatism has seen those boundaries widen to claim overseas films made by Australians: The Lego Movie and Finding Nemo are classified by some scholars as Australian films owing to their involvement with local animation studios, while Hollywood franchises like Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean benefit from massive local tax incentives and subsidies to lure them ashore and provide jobs to mostly Australian crews.
Casting JonBenet was developed with funding from Screen Australia and Film Victoria, as well as the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program. Its framework is that of an Australian looking into a foreign country. Similarly, it took an overseas director, Canadian Ted Kotcheff, to sense Australia as a blokey, alcoholic nightmare in Wake in Fright, now near-universally recognised as a key film in the history of Australian cinema. National myths are built on denials – can only an outsider ever really capture them?
Green is able to cast a more detached, wry eye over events that Americans have integrated into their psyches – she’s found something new in a story that’s been told the same way with the same non-results for twenty years. Before Green, Australian filmmaker Peter Weir caught onto the same phenomenon of American cluelessness with The Truman Show (1998), which captured early on the entertainment industry’s capacity to commercialise, narrativise and broadcast the very act of living. Truman was a hostage to reality TV; the difference today is that stars like the Kardashians do it to themselves.
National myths are built on denials – can only an outsider ever really capture them?
Casting JonBenet joins this tradition of films made in one nation by someone who originates in another, known as sojourner cinema. It took an Italian to make one of the key films about Britain and the creepy underside of the swinging 60s; Blowup (1966) by Michelangelo Antonioni. German Wim Wenders transformed the US desert into a backdrop to a story of terrible loss and recovery with Paris, Texas (1984), both building on and destroying the mythical spaces created by Westerns like John Ford’s The Searchers.
Akira Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala is another exemplar. The canonical Japanese auteur’s 1975 Soviet co-production is a terribly beautiful tale of the wreckage of ‘civilisation’ on Indigenous societies and of friendship across those societies’ boundaries. Dersu Uzala lives a traditional Nanai life in Russia’s Far East. He is befriended by Russian Captain Arseniev, who initially views him as a clueless nomad, but comes to respect and love him after Dersu’s knowledge of the ecosystem saves both their lives on a frozen lake in deep blizzard. At first, Dersu’s environment seems inhospitable, but we come to know it as he does: it’s his home, he’s part of it and it’s part of him. Eventually Dersu is persuaded to join Arseniev’s township, but he comes to realise this will be his deathblow.
The film is an astounding work in that it is shot almost totally outdoors in the icy forests, but moves gradually indoors as Dersu is divorced from the land that birthed him. Through that shift from exterior to interior, we too feel Dersu’s world become smaller, more sorrowful and less inhabitable. Though made by an outsider, it critiques processes of colonialism rather than manifesting as a form of cinematic colonialism; it’s not about the wilderness as such, but the environment as your home.
Of course, there’s a way not to make films outside your country of origin. I wasn’t convinced that Australian director’s Amiel Court-Wilson’s Ruin (2013), a film made about two lovers on the run in Cambodia, offered anything more than a glancing understanding of a complicated country. Court-Wilson has said the writing and storytelling process was based on fleeting instinct rather than deep research, and it shows, manifesting as a traveller’s impressions rather than a jolting new insight.
Likewise, this year’s Berlin Syndrome by Cate Shortland was unclear in its use of the former German Democratic Republic as a backdrop to a story of kidnapping and gendered brutality. It didn’t seem to have anything especially new to say about the long shadow cast on a country by a history of violence, nor was it lucid about whether or not its central conceit – a guilelessly naive Brisbane backpacker visits Berlin as an amateur photographer to capture the Brutalist architecture of the city, only to find herself captured – was intended as an ironic moral lesson.
For that reason, sojourner cinema is dangerous territory – without meticulous research and clearly defined themes, the outsider filmmaker can become an intruder, an arrogant figure not unlike those tourists we’ve all come across who speak with total and sweeping authority about a culture and a country they’ve experienced only for a few weeks.
Without meticulous research and clearly defined themes, the outsider filmmaker can become an intruder.
But these kinds of boundary-crossing films need to be made and can be made well. Australia’s internal culture is so toxically opposed to self-examination – we need more Wake in Frights, more informed and respectful and challenging views from the outside in. There’s also a pretty good argument that many Indigenous directors today engage in a type of sojourner cinema – given that their sense of belonging to their own country as well as the Australian nation is often denied by the mainstream, Indigenous filmmakers can be understood as being forced to act as visitors on their own land. The early works of Ivan Sen speak to a sideways look at this country’s myths that you rarely see in the works of non-Aboriginal filmmakers.
Beneath Clouds and Toomelah are most commonly viewed through their themes around identity, but to me they also convey a profound sense of dislocation – people who are Australian but searching for a home for themselves, who have a huge but displaced need for belonging. Scholar Jane Mills says that Toomelah in particular paints its geographic and cultural landscape as ‘a borderland in need of a border.’ Like Wake in Fright, Sen’s early works speak to a part of the Australian national character without leaning on nationalism, and that seems to be a big part of what sojourner cinema is all about.
Cinema – and the output of different national cinemas – is constantly engaged with the idea of border crossings. In a way, global in-home producer-distributors like Netflix simply take this incessant border-crossing to the next level. Who is Australia, who is the USA, what denials are at their cores? I don’t really know. But I do believe that the founding lies of a country can’t always be seen clearly from the inside.
The final scene of Casting JonBenet speaks to the horrendous lie of JonBenét’s short, weird life. By casting her in the role of a beauty pageant queen, sexualising her image and denying her a childhood, her parents aimed her toward their vision of the American Dream: a Barbie girl of Mattel perfection. But the reality that they got, almost self-destructively conjured, was so much more than what they bargained for: a tragedy of girlhood, a family breakdown, a media storm of eternal fame for the most appalling reasons.
The last shots we see are not of JonBenét the girl, but JonBenét the myth: a young actor in ballroom feathers, dancing in a downlit wallpapered hallway, to the orchestral strains of Johnny Desmond’s (There She Is) Miss America: ‘There she is, your ideal…’ This is the tragedy: that the legend now outweighs the very real death of a very real girl. She steps off the set of her house and onto the production soundstage, unknowable, yet spotlit forever.
Casting JonBenet is available now on Netflix.