Australian filmmaker Kitty Green says that more than two decades after the unsolved murder of JonBenét Ramsey in Boulder, Colorado, the case remains so fascinating to people in part because of the similarities with David Lynch’s surreal 1990s television drama Twin Peaks.
“It’s around Christmas, Santa Claus is a suspect, the victim is a beauty queen who is just 6 years old, and her mother was also in pageants – it’s like David Lynch wrote it,” says Green. Her documentary, Casting JonBenet, explores the effects of the child’s death on the community. It will be released on Netflix on Friday.
“It’s such a strange set of circumstances,” Kelly says of the Ramsey case. “That, for me, is why it’s so interesting. That was kind of the hook. It easily lent itself to these cinematic sequences that are in the film because basically it’s like ripping scenes out of Twin Peaks.”
In Twin Peaks, which returns to TV next month after a break of 26 years, the drama is sparked by the murder of an 18-year old cheerleader and prom queen in a town populated by eccentric characters.
The lure of that show was that the murder-mystery opened a door for audiences to get to know those characters and gain an insight into a community that only seems normal on the surface.
Green’s extraordinary documentary – which holds a 100 per cent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and earned acclaim during its run of festival screenings – delves into the lives of those in the community affected by Ramsey’s death.
Rather than using the traditional documentary style of interviewing people, an approach adopted by many previous investigations into what remains an unsolved crime, Green chose an unusual alternative.
She called upon members of the community in Boulder to audition for a proposed film about the murder. Some have had close family members murdered, one brings whips to the auditions, and they all have theories to share about what happened.
“There were a lot of influences that made me decide to make a film in this unique way,” says Green. “I made a short film [The Face of Ukraine: Casting Oksana Baiul, 2015] which was about a figure skater. I had little girls dress up.
“And then there was this Louis C K joke that stuck with me, that somewhere there must be all these audition tapes of little girls auditioning to be the young girl in Schindler’s List.
“But ultimately the film was about getting different perspectives on something that is well known.”
The facts are as follows. At 6am on December 26, 1996, Patsy Ramsey called the Boulder police department saying her daughter was missing from the family home and that she had found a two-and-a-half page ransom note. The police arrived and later that day the girl’s body was found by her father, John, in the basement of the house. She had been dead for some time – hit on the head and strangled.
The police botched the investigation by initially allowing neighbours to walk around the house, and failing to search it.
The case is used by the Boulder police force as an example of how not to investigate a crime.
There are several theories: JonBenét was accidentally killed by one or both of her parents; her 9-year-old brother killed her and the parents covered it up; or it was a botched kidnapping.
Yet – and this is what makes Green’s film all the more remarkable – she does not set out to solve the mystery.
“I don’t have a theory,” she says. “The film is not about that – it’s more about the community reflecting on the crime, and so there is no real point speculating. It is an unsolved crime.”
As a result, the crime fades into the background, and it is the revelations about the local community that fascinate – in a similar way to how in Twin Peaks, the murder of Laura Palmer was a device to explore a small town and the secrets of its inhabitants.
Casting JonBenet is about memory and trying to come to terms with a collective trauma.
“They are a bunch of people trying to make sense of something that they’ll never be able to make sense of,” says Green, “so they are bringing their own personal experience and creating their own narratives and their own stories to deal with it.”
“Everyone has their own way of dealing with it.”
• Casting JonBenet will be available on Netflix from Friday