Casting JonBenet and the year of alternative facts

“Casting JonBenet” may seem at first like an unlikely film for understanding “alternative facts,” the phrase we lived with throughout 2017.

Bear with me here.

You’d be right to wonder about the historical value of yet another examination of the sensational 1996 murder of JonBenet Ramsey, the Colorado six-year-old and beauty-pageant contestant.

But Australian director Kitty Green is up to something much deeper than recapping an all-American crime story.

Something even darker than the still-unsolved case of a gruesome murder that happened 21 years ago this week.

At its core, “Casting JonBenet” is about the need people have to attach themselves to stories they passionately believe to be true — even when they are demonstrably false.

It’s about the power of “alternative facts” when people merge them with their own emotionally charged personal narratives.

“Casting JonBenet” is a snapshot of a free society that has access to higher-quality information than any people have ever enjoyed, yet retains an amazingly strong capacity for self-delusion.

It’s also a really unusual and entertaining film that Netflix was wise to snap up at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.

Before we get into it, though, we need to rewind to 1996.

“Journalistic oxygen”

The week that JonBenet Ramsey died, the world was years away from Facebook. The public Internet was ruled by Prodigy and AOL. My newspaper’s website won an award looking like this.

CNN was the go-to cable news source, Fox and MSNBC having just signed on. And despite CNN’s blanket coverage of Rodney King and O.J., journalism still followed the guidelines and deadlines of daily newspapers.

That was all about to change.

You could make a pretty good case that the change began on the morning of December 26, 1996, after Boulder police answered a frantic 911 call from Patsy Ramsey about a ransom note and her missing daughter.

Police were caught off guard, perhaps because there hadn’t been a homicide in Boulder all year, or because the only person on the force trained to handle kidnapping cases was on vacation.

At any rate, detectives didn’t secure the crime scene and didn’t search the house until after JonBenet’s father, businessman John Ramsey, found her body.

Standing in the contaminated crime scene, police quickly decided that John and Patsy were not being honest with them. Eventually the Ramseys became the focus of the investigation.

Later on, signs of forced entry would be discovered, which would have pointed police away from John and Patsy. Had the story stayed local, perhaps there would have been a chance to respond to these errors and change the investigation.

Here’s what happened instead.

Four days in, a photographer sold cheesecake portraits of JonBenet to the tabloids. Television followed suit, scooping up video of JonBenet prancing about on stage at a pageant.

Overnight the case became a national obsession.

As a People magazine editor would explain years later, the images gave the story “journalistic oxygen.” (For the record, I managed to breathe quite normally during this time without writing a lick about JonBenet.)

But those images also permanently skewed the story. For many following the case, seeing a six-year-old girl dolled up to look like a teenager was proof that something wasn’t right with John and Patsy Ramsey.

“Alternative facts” in the Ramsey case

Over the years, seemingly half the channels on the TV dial built programming around JonBenet’s murder — docudramas, cut-and-paste jobs, speculative trash, and at least six miniseries.

Also, 10 major books were written about the case, which meant hundreds of hours more TV time spent interviewing the authors and discussing their theories.

And here we come to a fundamental problem with video storytelling, which is that Rule No. 1 is to keep the viewer from switching away. That means tell the story as compellingly as the video form allows.

And that means trotting out the discredited narratives again and again. Not to debunk them, but to draw in viewers who still believe them.

Later work by private investigators would uncover clues that had been missed by police, evidence that pointed to a break-in. Taser marks on JonBenet’s chest suggested how she could be abducted without her parents hearing a thing. An intruder was found in another little girl’s room, in a nearby home, some time later.

Eventually, all charges against the Ramseys would be dropped and the justice system would issue a public apology to the family. But that didn’t happen until 2008. In the meantime, storytellers had a free rein to incorporate these “alternative facts” into their narratives, even as reputable sources discredited them.

The result was to sow mass confusion. Three years after JonBenet’s death, a Gallup poll found one in five Americans suspected the Ramseys of doing in their little girl. Among those who said they were closely following the story, it was more like half.

“There is no other film like this”

So now let’s turn to Kitty Green’s remarkable film and what it tells us about truth, “alternative facts,” and the peril we face as a society when we can’t sort out one from the other.

Even the director says her film is not easy to describe.

Parts of it look like a made-for-TV movie. Parts of it look like auditions for the actors for that same made-for-TV movie. Parts of it will remind you of a reality show.

Let’s call it a concept documentary. Here’s how it got made.

In Denver, Boulder, and other nearby towns, Green’s company announced an open casting call for the roles of John, Patsy, and JonBenet Ramsey, plus other characters you’d expect in a “based on a true story” movie.

Green went out of her way to recruit non-actors she thought would have a keen interest in the Ramsey case. Calls went out to area pageant moms and people in law enforcement.

At the auditions, she sat down one-on-one with each hopeful and tried to explain what was really going on.

She warned them: “There is no other film like this.”

Their audition tapes would be used in the film. Their interviews with Green would be used. Individual scenes featuring them in their roles would be used — alongside footage of other actors cast in the exact same roles.

“But that’s still hard to wrap your head around,” Green admitted later. “So it was a difficult process and they had to trust us. We were like, ‘Are you willing to jump down the rabbit hole with us?’”

Seventy-two actors said yes, they were.

Green had used audition tapes in a 2015 film short about the gymnast Oksana Baiul. So she knew what she was doing. And her bet was simple — that anyone interested in trying out would have some personal motivation other than a movie credit. That they probably identified with a character in the case. And (this was something Green noticed about Americans) they’d be happy to talk about it, on camera.

“You’d ask them about the character and how they would approach playing Patsy Ramsey,” said Green. “And immediately, one would go on about how her mother had bipolar disorder.”

A different Patsy talked about being sexually propositioned as a 15-year-old by a “nice, sweet, older” neighbor.

An actor interviewing to play John Ramsey shared about the time he woke up to find his girlfriend had died next to him in the night.

But Green is after something more than just the emotional hooks that every actor needs to do their work. She wants to know what people who have lived with the local and national media coverage of the Ramsey case all these years think about the crime itself.

Patsy’s tearful TV interviews, one Patsy wannabe concludes, was “the poorest acting job I’ve ever seen.” Another Patsy declares that she must have been “a royal bitch of a mother.” The woman with the bipolar mom not only thinks Patsy was bipolar, but that’s what made it possible for her to kill her own child.

As the film wore on, and actors in other roles shared their perspectives on the case — including older brother Burke and a creepy Santa Claus — I realized how the actor’s own stories shaped the way they sorted through the facts.

One of the Johns, a counselor in real life, observed that Patsy Ramsey died of ovarian cancer in 2006, and that “often with disease comes dis-ease.” This bit of New Age nonsense, which I heard more than once during my own illness, is doubly ignorant since it disregards Patsy’s successful battle with Stage IV cancer in the early 1990s.

Even actors who are aware that the police botched the case aren’t convinced that it wasn’t an inside job.

After a while, you get that sinking feeling — one a lot of us have been feeling throughout 2017 — that the facts are secondary to the stories these people are telling themselves.

“It was weird how natural that was,” Green observed. “People immediately went to their own personal narratives in order to come up with some sort of way through this tragedy.”

“We’ll never know”

I saw “Casting JonBenet” at the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri, last March. Afterward during the Q&A I asked the director what she told the actors when they asked her the question that I would ask — namely, why are you doing this?

“We said, ‘We’re looking at a community project at how people deal with grief and pain and loss and construct their own narratives to make sense of something that is nonsensical.’ We wanted to close the book on it and say, ‘That’s enough now. We’ve done this and we’ll never know the answer.’” Kitty Green, director, “Casting JonBenet”

OK, but we do know enough to dispense of the truly nonsensical theories — that Burke did it, that John was in a child-sex ring, that Patsy snapped when she found JonBenet had wet the bed …

And yet, like the Kennedy conspiracists who came before JonBenet — and the truthers, birthers, and Pizzagate charlatans who came after — the half-life of “alternative facts” is near infinite.

Indeed, the media hothouse that has kept this story alive is bearing stranger fruit than ever. To mark the 20th anniversary of the crime last year, CBS put out a truly reprehensible piece of docutrash that speculated how JonBenet may have been killed over some pineapple.

The antidote is empathy

Green’s film, however, does point to the one antidote to “alternative facts.”

And no, it’s not as simple as “get the facts” or “seek the truth” or one of those slogans you hear the old gatekeepers — public media and newspapers — use in their advertising.

It’s this:

As human beings, we are storytellers. And we’re really good at telling our own stories. Not surprisingly, we filter all outside information through the understanding that we’ve formed in telling our personal narratives. (Mom was bipolar, ergo JonBenet’s mom was bipolar.)

But we also are responsible to the society in which we live. And we need to recognize there are consequences to ignoring the stories of other people.

We become isolated. That makes our psyches easier to hack. Because whether it’s a political demagogue or a social-media advertiser, there is no shortage of people willing to say exactly what you want to hear.

The antidote is listening to and learning from others. Your friends, your loved ones, your accountant won’t always tell you what you want to hear. But if they care, they’ll say what you need to hear.


If you enjoyed “Casting JonBenet,” I’d encourage you to pair it with the 2016 Barbara Walters special on the JonBenet case. It was done for the true-crime series “American Scandals” on Investigation Discovery, and is now streaming on Hulu. This is the freshest and most credible timeline of the case, from the initial theories to their debunking.

The second half of the program features Walters’ 2000 interview with the Ramseys, then her 2016 interview with John Ramsey.

And then, for another stellar film about true-crime stories that went off the rails, watch Andrew Jarecki’s 2004 classic “Capturing the Friedmans.” It’s one of the picks in my free download 52 History Films You Must See, available below.

Like to feel smarter and watch better? Get 52 History Films You Must See and HISTORY IS POWER in your mailbox. Subscribe, it’s free!