Casting JonBenét Review

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Casting JonBenét

‘Casting JonBenét’ is a Netflix documentary written and directed by Kitty Green was released in the beginning of 2017. The documentary explores the case of the 6 year old beauty queen, JonBenét who was murdered in 1996. Her murder remains unsolved and was one of the biggest cases of the decade. In the sleepy town of Boulder Colorado, nothing to that extent had happened before. If you’re unfamiliar, the day after christmas in Boulder, Patsy Ramsey found her daughter missing and a ransom note. After some investigation, they found her a few hours later, dead in the wine cellar. Her murder has never been solved and is still highly speculated. There have been many documentaries and news stories, telling the facts and trying to find a resolution to this story.

This documentary is something different. Green doesn’t want or expect a resolution. The documentary is set as various actors audition for the parts of Patsy, JonBenét, John and Burke Ramsey. These actors were the focus of the film but Green also held ‘auditions’ for the parts of John Mark Karr, the pedophile who said he killed JonBenét, a santa claus who was at a party and the police chief and other investigators. The auditions go through various sets and scenes but Green’s ultimate goal is to get the actors talking about the case, what they know, what they’ve heard and their personal experiences with it. Green put out the casting call in Boulder, in hopes of gathering the locals and the ones with stories to tell. She asks them how they connected to the characters while on camera and they started telling her very personal things. One had been abused, one’s brother had been murdered, one had a loved one die next to them, one was almost murdered by her father etc. These stories and experiences are what created the documentary.

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Casting JonBenét

Green used these auditions to create a new narrative in the story of JonBenét. She says, “We’re interested in their interpretations of what happened that night in the face of knowing they don’t know exactly what happened.” By exploring the theories and stories from the general public, it shows just how distant the story has gotten from the truth. Everyone has created a story or theory about who did it and why, and they are all shared in this documentary. It explores how people talk, think and react to cases such as this and how our own personal experiences influence that. Green very cleverly is questioning if we’ll ever get a resolution to the murder and what everyone believes to be ‘truth’.

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Casting JonBenét

Every actor had a different or varying interpretation of what happened to JonBenét during the auditions. To keep the viewer aware that this was simply opinion and was unreal, Green has filmed the interviews with parts of the set in the background, some of the actors talking to crew and even the actors walking around the set. At the end of the film we see all those who auditioned for Patsy and John walking around the interior of the house and practicing their scenes. We then see the scenes cut together in a quick and smooth style. This final sequence re-establishes what Green is going for in this documentary, the amount of possibilities and events that would have occurred are endless are up for interpretation by everyone. The world will always have a new theory or idea about what happened to JonBenét.

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Casting JonBenét

Kitty Green has created an extremely unique and attention grabbing documentary- because it’s so different to what we usually see. In a very Errol Morris-esque style, we are given facts and told to create our own story with those facts. The only difference here is that the ‘facts’ we are given are the misinformation spread by the amount of press and news the story received. The film is a comment on how we have started to ignore the actual child that had died, this is shown in the film as we see the little girls audition for JonBenét for around 2 minutes. The media and the public in general seemed to focus on the crime and the news behind it, ignoring the young girl who was actually murdered. They focus on her parents, making stories about them and their family, reading the paper and forgetting about her. The film ends in a beautiful scene where the girl playing JonBenét walks down a hallway of the open set, wearing a costume from her pageant as ‘There She Is, Miss America’ plays in the background. Kitty Green said, “You get caught up in all the tabloid sensation and all of that stuff, and you kind of forget about what’s important here,” Green says. “I always wanted to end the film with her image. It made sense to give her a kind of a swan song.”

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References:

Green, K. (Director). (2017, January 22). Casting JonBenét[Video file]. Retrieved July 16, 2017, from https://www.netflix.com/watch/80142316?trackId=13752289&tctx=0%2C0%2C41f7a203250d5b92cc98156fd5ce88a03a8af596%3A9b9b15e375c107d64f2842f05d090afc61ff858a
Dargis, M. (2017, April 27). Review: ‘Casting JonBenet’ Revisits a 1996 Murder. Retrieved July 16, 2017, from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/27/movies/casting-jonbenet-review-jonbenet-ramsey.html
Debruge, P. (2017, April 28). Film Review: ‘Casting JonBenét’. Retrieved July 16, 2017, from http://variety.com/2017/film/reviews/casting-jonbenet-review-jon-benet-ramsey-netflix-1202402572/
Wilkinson, A. (2017, April 28). Netflixs Casting JonBenét isnt a true crime story. Its something better. Retrieved July 16, 2017, from https://www.vox.com/culture/2017/4/28/15437008/casting-jonbenet-kitty-green-interview-netflix

Vox Pops

On a very rainy Friday afternoon, my documentary crew (Henry, Riley and I), hit the streets of West End to ask strangers what they thought of the food in the area. The goal of these questions were to lead into their thoughts of the multiculturalism and diversity of the area. Using food as the initial topic, was the safest way to begin. These on-the-street interviews are often used in documentary films to gain public opinion with catchy grabs that add to whatever story is being told. One would’ve heard them being referred to as Vox Pops. Stemming from the latin phrase, ‘Vox Populi’ which means ‘voice of the people’. The website Media College writes, The vox pop is a tool used in many forms of media to provide a snapshot of public opinion. Random subjects are asked to give their views on a particular topic and their responses are presented to the viewer/reader as a reflection of popular opinion.’ By using these interviews, it gives the documentary an element of relevance to the general population instead of one particular group. This technique only works in certain topics.

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Is Smacking Your Children Okay?

Before the exercise we worked together to create 10 questions to ask in the interviews, leading the subject into the conversation, asking a tougher question and then easing them out of it. This is incredibly important when conducting interviews, i explain more about this in my blog, Interview Techniques. After deciding on the questions to use, we went to boundary street and interviewed a few people each. As Riley is our director, he went first in asking questions with Henry following him. During this time I was watching them and how they communicated with the subjects. I was really nervous about interviewing people as i’m fairly shy and struggle with maintaining conversation. After observing Riley and Henry and how they lead the subjects in and out of the topic by responding directly to what the person was saying while also maintaining the theme, i realised that the questions we wrote were just a basis and didn’t have to be followed exactly. When it came to my time to interview people, I found myself asking the questions in order and then using what my subjects had given me to get the answers I wanted.

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I found it difficult to get people to be interviewed but once you got some of them talking, they were all very passionate about what they were speaking about. We were able to get the responses that we required but struggled with the camera and sound due to the conditions. I found the process really rewarding as I was able to communicate and work with strangers, overcoming lots of fears about approaching people. If I were to do this again however, I think choosing a nicer day and maybe getting the subjects to articulate a bit better about what they were speaking about. Some of the responses came off very complicated. After this exercise, it opened my mind a bit more about the potential of going to a car show and interviewing people for our documentary. This could add an extra element to our film that would be really interesting to watch.

(n.d.). Retrieved July 14, 2017, from http://www.mediacollege.com/video/interviews/voxpops.html

Production – How to film a vox pop. (n.d.). Retrieved July 14, 2017, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/academy/production/article/art20141029111247531

Errol Morris

Errol Morris is often described as one of the best documentary filmmakers of all time. Roger Ebert says, “After twenty years of reviewing films, I haven’t found another filmmaker who intrigues me more…Errol Morris is like a magician, and as great a filmmaker as Hitchcock or Fellini.” Morris is a documentarian who created the films, ‘The Thin Blue Line’, ‘Standard Operating Procedure’ and ‘The Fog of War’. Morris is so influential because of his unique style of creating documentaries.

While making and researching ‘The Thin Blue Line’ Morris was working as a private detective. His background in this can be very clearly seen in how he conducts his interviews and how his documentaries are themed. Errol Morris’ clear directorial style is seen in how his interviews are filmed. By having his interviewees look into the lense of the camera, rather than the side like most interviews, Morris sets up a feeling of interrogation and investigation by having a camera show his face through a receiver in front of the interviewee. The way he holds these interviews gives the audience an opportunity to go through the detective journey with him. ‘Standard Operating Procedure’ is his 2008 documentary about the Abu Ghraib Scandal. The documentary consists of multiple interviews and stock footage/photographs. The interviews are held with the subjects looking into the camera, in Errol Morris’ unique fashion. Whilst watching the documentary, I found myself wondering who I believed and who was clearly lying to the camera. This is a perfect example of Morris’ directorial style. The way he conducts and interviews his subjects, allows the audience the opportunity to do the detective work and decide what they believe is the ‘truth’.

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Errol Morris often speaks openly about truth and what he believes it to be. He has said in multiple interviews that he doesn’t believe that the medium of film or photography provide any truth or any falsity to something. An excerpt from a film journalist, David Chen, says ‘He recalled, “When I first started making movies, there was a received idea about how you were supposed to make a documentary. Call it whatever you want: cinéma vérité, direct cinema, blah blah blah. But it was this idea of shooting with available light, shooting with a hand-held camera, the fly-on-the-wall idea. You’re observing, you’re not interacting, you’re not altering.” The implication was that by following these rules, arbitrary or not, one might somehow be able to produce something that was “truthful.” But Morris rejected this idea. “Just because you adopt a style of shooting, somehow, truth doesn’t pop up a kind of magic meat grinder that produces the truth,” he insisted.’

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I believe that the way Errol Morris looks at writing and creating documentaries is very unique  and effective in what he is presenting. I enjoy his documentaries in the way they make the audience form their own opinion and hope to use it on my own work one day.

Errol Morris: Film. Errolmorris.com. Retrieved 13 June 2017, from http://errolmorris.com/biography.html

Errol Morris: Interview. (2004). Errolmorris.com. Retrieved 13 June 2017, from http://www.errolmorris.com/content/interview/believer0404.html

Morris, E. (2008). Standard Operating Procedure. Participant Media.

Chen, D. (2017). A Conversation with Errol Morris on the Nature of Truth, Photography, and Documentary – /Film. Slashfilm. Retrieved 4 July 2017, from http://www.slashfilm.com/conversation-errol-morris-nature-truth-photography-documentary/

Interview Techniques

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to have a lecture with Dr Jodie Taylor on Friday. Jodie, a lecturer at SAE, often hosts lectures on interview techniques and ethics. I have had many lectures with Jodie before and I always enjoy learning from her. The documentary I am working on this trimester is about a man and his legacy before he has a major surgery. We need to talk to him about how he feels about potentially dying and taking his stories with him. These are very sensitive topics and Jodie gave us some great feedback. We were taught about how to ask difficult questions without upsetting our talent too much. You need to have correct body language and also make the interviewee feel comfortable.

To practice this, Jodie had us ask difficult questions to our peers. I was the first to ask my friend about her first sexual encounter. I already knew that my friend was asexual so instead of asking her about her first sexual experience, I asked her when she realised she was asexual. Having the background information on that first hand was incredibly helpful as i knew i had to phrase the question a different way. If I had asked her about her sexual encounters without knowing her background, I could’ve easily offended her and if it was a different situation, there is the potential I could’ve triggered someone. That’s why getting as much background information before the interview process is so important.

The question my friend had to ask me was, ‘What was your childhood and family life like?’ instead of asking me that directly, she asked me about my parents and siblings, this in turn led me to talk about my childhood. I’m not a very closed off person and often discuss what i’ve gone through if someone asks. I did talk about things that i hadn’t to many people before though and I think it was because my friend was so open and understanding during the interview process.

Changing between interviewer and interviewee was a bit strange because it almost felt like a hierarchy shift. When I was interviewing I felt a lot more in control of the situation instead of when I was being interviewed. I also found myself talking more than I expected when I was interviewed, almost like I had to explain myself more. Switching roles definitely helped me realise how to conduct an interview well and make my interviewee feel comfortable. I was able to learn from my partner in what she did to encourage me to talk and also how I hold myself during interviews. I feel less nervous asking personal questions because I know how to do them safely and professionally.

During our Vox Pop exercises, i’ll be able to think more about what and how i’m asking to my interviewees. It’ll be a bit different because we won’t know the people we are interviewing so not having the background knowledge on someone is a bit intimidating but I believe using the techniques Jodie gave us will be extremely helpful.

Documentary Modality

Every documentary you see will have a different style, theme and feeling behind it. This isn’t just because of the different topics, it’s because the filmmaker has to decide what Modality they want the film to feature. Modality means ‘modes of desire’ and in a film context, it’s the way a documentary is made. These modalities are used for the following reasons:

  • To record, reveal or preserve
  • To persuade or promote
  • To analyse or interrogate
  • To express

 

To achieve these, a filmmaker could make an expository, poetic, observational or participatory documentary. These are just a few of the modalities used to make successful documentaries. The most common would be expository documentaries. They speak directly to the viewer, almost in a ‘voice of God’ type of manner. These documentaries are very structured and heavily narrated to move the story along. A contrast to these documentaries are poetic and observational documentaries. These focus more on mood, style and tone to tell their story rather than the typical film structures seen in others. Participatory is one of the more obscure but incredibly interesting types of modality. In participatory documentaries, the director/filmmaker immerses themselves into the story world, becoming part of the documentary. This is is a very special but also risky technique depending on the subjects being filmed.

I’m currently in the process of proposing an expository documentary, ‘Not Guilty’. Expository documentaries are made to persuade an audience using combinations of voice overs and narrations that act almost like a voice of god. The authoritative nature of these voice overs/narrations are also to speak directly to the viewer and strengthen their argument. Expository documentaries are one of the most popular forms as they don’t rely heavily on visuals but rather the storytelling of whatever the event is. My documentary is an expository documentary because it is heavily interview based and relies on the protagonist to tell the audience her story. Similar to a film called ‘The Case of 8’ where the interviews and life experiences coming directly from the lawyers and victims are said in a standard interview format. That being said however, it will also have observational qualities.

Observational documentaries capture moments as they happen in time. They observe life with a minimum of intervention. This modality will be present in my documentary as well as some of the scenes over narration will have an observational element to them. These will be dramatized sequences but will give the audience the ‘fly on the wall’ mentality.

Modality is versatile but incredibly important when it comes to making a documentary. Without a specific vision or reasoning behind them, the documentary will struggle in capturing an audience and truly expressing its story. The modalities I have chosen for my documentary will allow the viewer to connect with my characters while also showing a behind the scenes look at what they do.

What Is Documentary?

A Documentary is a genre of film that tells true stories. This has been my definition since starting film school. As I never went out of my way to investigate or learn more, I stuck with it and only watched the occasional documentary when I couldn’t find anything else. It was never really a genre that intrigued me (like horror films or music videos). After watching ‘Capturing Reality’ (Ferrari, 2008) however, I changed my mind. Capturing Reality is a documentary, about documentaries. It features 33 filmmakers of different races, genders and filming backgrounds. Each filmmaker described what they have worked on, how it affected them/their lives and how it was made. They also describe documentary in varying ways, but with the same undertone as my original statement. Alanis Obomsawin, director of ‘Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance’ (1993) defines it as ‘[Documentary] filmmaking is about being inspired by the moment, it’s about the joy of letting something effect you and respond. Whether it’s with your camera or yourself as a person”. Although there were multiple quotes that I could’ve used for this definition, I found this one the most relevant for my understanding of documentary. After doing more research on the topic I found a lot of feedback to be that people don’t connect enough emotionally with the story that they write or produce. In order to create a successful documentary it seems, one must really find that emotional connection and protect and encourage it. Not only to create a fantastic film but also to influence yourself as a person and your experiences.

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In the book, ‘Creative Documentary: Theory and Practice’ documentary is defined as  
“Documentary is increasingly an umbrella term for diverse formats, narrative forms and different distribution platforms, with one generic aim: to record and represent fragmented realities to their audiences. The ambition to reveal ‘truth’ or ‘reality’ has been rightfully challenged, but the aim to ‘be truthful’ and to reveal experiences (‘realities’) is central to the documentary ambition.” (De Jong, Knudsen, Rothwell, 2011) I found this definition to be really effective as it shares similarities to the definition from ‘Capturing Reality’ but they aren’t exactly the same. In this book about creating creative documentaries, the authors often emphasise the need for truth, regardless of how it changes someone’s life. That being said, they also emphasise the ethics in regards to those challenges. Alanis Obomsawin however really expressed the need for a documentary to change you as a person as well. Combining these two definitions would create the best overall impression of documentary and has changed how I see it. In my own words now I would define documentary as, ‘Documentary films are showing someone’s (or group) truth/reality to change someone’s (or your own) perspective’.

Documentaries are quite different to other genres of film because they don’t require a completely new story. Although they still need a story arch and something to drive the film, it’s not as important to create something fictional. While making a documentary as well you rely on the protagonist to tell and express the emotions behind the events while also expressing their truth. Another filmmaker from ‘Capturing Reality’, Kim Longinotto said, ‘Rather than telling people what to think… we’re taking them through an emotional experience’. I thought this was a really good example of how different documentary and dramatic filmmaking are. Instead of shaping people’s minds and viewing experience with an unreal situation, you can connect them with a real life even that makes them think and relate.

 

Throughout the coming weeks I plan on doing a lot more research into documentary filmmaking as it seems like a genre I can see myself enjoying making. Truth and emotion are two of the most intriguing topics for me to create with and it seems to go hand in hand with documentaries.

 

References

Capturing Reality: The Art of Documentary. (2008). Canada.

de, J. W., Knudsen, E., & Rothwell, J. (2011). Creative Documentary : Theory and Practice. Florence, GB: Routledge. Retrieved from http://www.ebrary.com
YouTube. (2017). Capturing Reality : The Art of Documentary (Clip). [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lPavxiKKT2w

Directing Workshop with Mairi Cameron

Today my class did a workshop with SAE director and lecturer Mairi Cameron. I am a producer but have done a bit of directing and really enjoyed it. I also studied theatre and film acting in high school so am fairly aware in what goes into the making of character. Although i knew quite a lot of the techniques and practices Mairi was explaining to us, it was still such a good refresher on what it takes to direct an actor and get the best performance out of them. When I was acting and directing, I would often write out backstories, specific character traits and other general information about characters. This helped me connect with them in a deeper way and Mairi gave us some more ways to do this. She taught us about different stages one could go through to create a more 3 dimensional character. One of the exercises i hadn’t done much of was selecting action verbs to apply to a scene. By doing this, you could communicate with the actor the intent of the scene without telling them exactly what to do. To practice this we were given a scene and had to figure out the given circumstances and apply some action verbs. I worked with Jaden Bowen (another producer) and together we came up with a very solid and understandable idea. We were able to ‘direct’ it with two members of our class. It was a lot more difficult to actually communicate with the actors what our scene was meant to be but by using some of the action words and explain in detail what the characters stories were, our two ‘actors’ were able to connect with the parts much easier. 

I was chosen to act out a different scene with my friend Matt. In the story world we had a romantical and physical connection, which we don’t in real life. The directors were struggling to try and explain our emotions and goals in the scene but with Mairi’s help we were able to get to the level of understanding our motivations. I used a technique i used to use while acting which was to imagine a similar situation that had occurred in my life and tap into those emotions and connections. By thinking of these events i was able to really connect with my character and could give a good performance. What I found the most interesting about this was how difficult it could be to get into a characters headspace when the direction is lacking. The directors for this one were really struggling to express what they wanted without telling us exactly what to do. It made me realise how much extra planning needs to go into a directors work of character development. Although not all actors don’t need extra information to connect with their character, some do and it is really important to have a very developed story world.

If i venture more into directing and even acting, I would definitely do some more research on the different methods of acting and how to really elaborate and connect with every actor. I think it’s really important to be knowledgable on what it takes to be an actor if you’re directing someone. It’s so important for both actors and directors to know how to work together and get each other to the level they need for whatever is being made. My history with acting and directing helped me a lot in this workshop as i could hone into those skills i learnt over many years. That being said though, there was a lot that was refreshed and I also learnt a few new things. As it is ever developing, I think keeping up and doing lots of research on acting and directing is vital for an aspiring creative. I learnt a lot about how to communicate and take care of actors on set as well. The actresses were telling us about some difficult people they worked with and how badly they were treated and how that effected their performances. They gave us some really good tips on keeping communication lines open, on hearing and trying feedback and how to work and develop the character with the actors.

Overall, this workshop was really useful and it really encouraged me to try and direct and even act more! I plan on doing some more research on different directing techniques and practice some script development to try and increase my skills and knowledge.