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Crimcast is a virtual resource devoted to critical conversations about criminology and criminal justice issues. Our blogposts, twitter feeds, podcasts and other content provide an overview of trends, research, commentary and events of interest to criminal justice practitioners, academics and the general public. CrimCast is sponsored by The Center for Crime and Popular Culture, St. Francis College, Brooklyn, NY.

Casting JonBenet: Documentary or Something Else?

Staci Strobl

By Staci Strobl

Casting JonBenet (2017) is an enigmatic and interesting film, but I have been struggling since viewing it to accept the film as belonging to the documentary genre.  The thrust of the piece involves an audition of would-be actors in a film about the JonBenet case; the several Patsy hopefuls and the several John hopefuls and the several Burke hopefuls, etc., find themselves giving a series of monologues about the events of the 1996 murder that build into an ominous chorus.  It's a fascinating long-form montage.  The various theatrical performances give off the haunting sensation that there is no steady place to stand, as if the whole case is itself is an emotionally hellish hall of mirrors.  I like the film as pure art.  

I have deep ambivalence about the film as a documentary.  It should perhaps be categorized as a mockumentary: a film that uses the documentary style but isn't to be relied upon in an informative sense.  In fact, the casting call depicted is staged: there is no real theatrical production other than the artificial one created for the production of the film.  Further, we learn nothing new about the JonBenet case and we have no idea whether any of the voices emerging have any moral or legal authority in the matter.   All that being said, when approached as an art form, as fiction (loosely based on a real event), the film begins to shine.  It moves the viewer affectively, makes us feel the sadness, depravity, powerlessness, and alienation of being armchair witnesses to the terrible crime of child murder. 

As New York Times reviewer Manhola Dargis puts it, the film is a comment on:

...identity as performance; performance as identity; the reproduction of gossip; the impact of media sensationalism; the sexualization of young girls... The only substantive conclusion... is that murder can be endlessly exploited.

Although Dargis essentially pans the film as overly pretentious, I think it succeeds, perhaps not wildly, but nonetheless it is quite good-- as long as we discard the false appellation of documentary.