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Watch Actors Recreate a Heinous Crime in the ‘Casting JonBenet’ Trailer

One of last year’s finest films, and certainly the most challenging documentary, was Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine. The concept was ingenious: the film tracks actress Kate Lyn Sheil as she prepares to portray the late newswoman Christine Chubbuck and tease out what factors could have compelled a woman to shoot herself in the head on live television. It was a beguiling interrogation of authenticity and artifice, tracing the limits of performance as a means to locate truth, and now the world of documentary film has begun to follow Greene’s groundbreaking example. The new trailer for Casting JonBenet offers a glimpse at a film using Greene’s methods, and applying them to an equally disturbing footnote in history.

The JonBenet Ramsey murder and the ensuing investigation rocked the city of Boulder, Colorado to its very foundations and fascinated America. The case combined all the horror of youth beauty pageants with all the horror of child murder — the primped-up six-year-old was found dead in her parents’ basement one cold night in December 1996, sparking a national conversation over the unsavory sexualization of youth pageantry. The documentary will reopen the still-pending investigation in its own way, auditioning gaggles of actors to take on the roles of Ramsey’s brother, her parents, her coach, and the slain girl herself. This will ostensibly offer some new insight on the details of the case and who the ‘who’ might be in this whodunit.

Freely mixing documentary and scripted material like this can dredge up a lot of thorny ethical quandaries for documentarians and their audiences, however. Is it exploitative to mine drama from the very real tragedy that befell a very real family? At what point does the objective of doing right by Ramsey’s memory bleed into crass entertainment? In Kate Plays Christine, Sheil ends the film by calling out the people who’d want to reenact something so unpleasant as sadists. We’ll see how Casting JonBenet responds when it goes to Netflix on April 28.

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