International Documentary Festival Amsterdam Review: CITIZEN SLEUTH
Chris Kasick's documentary about sensationalistic true crime podcasts stumbles over its own agenda.
Often a film is as good as its protagonist. Sometimes it isn't. The latter is the case for Citizen Sleuth, a documentary that has a very compelling central character in Emily Nestor, but that fails to really capitalize on the potential of its subject.
Emily Nestor is an amateur sleuth whose obsession with true crime as a genre leads her down the road of podcasting. She tries to hit it big with her own podcast, Mile Marker 181, in which she is looking into the death of Jaleayah Davis, a woman who died in a car crash. It is a case of which many people suspect foul play. Was she really murdered, and was this a cover-up?
Emily is ostensibly trying to seek justice for Jaleayah, but when saying that you can hear her trying to convince herself of that notion. In some ways Emily is seeking fame, a way out of her small-town life. In other ways she is seeking vindication, clearly feeling lesser than some of her peers. And in some ways she is really seeking justice for Jaleayah, driven by a feeling of righteous indignation. She is a thorny character, at times woefully naive, at other times opportunistic. Someone who makes for a very compelling central character, that could make for a rich, nuanced personal portrait about the price of fame and the moral obligation people have to the truth.
Sadly, director Chris Kasick takes a slightly different route, himself driven by righteous indignation against true crime and its detrimental effects on journalism, victims, their families, people pointed out as suspects ánd the podcasters themselves. You can feel a palpable anger behind some of the scenes in the film. While I agree wholeheartedly with most of the points Kasick is trying to make, the way he goes about them irked me. This is a director with an axe to grind. Sadly the axe he uses is one of the blunt force-kind.
In several scenes in Citizen Sleuth Kasick uses editing to beat you over the head with his point, in a way that is so suggestive that it feels like he is throwing his subjects under the bus. Emily is not a likable protagonist, but the way in which Kasick tries to point out her hypocrisies feels overbearing. Other scenes in which real life true crime podcasters are showing off to Kasick's camera, while being intercut with a voice-over calling out the opportunists in the podcasts world, also rubbed me the wrong way. He may be right, but having people parade for the camera, not knowing in what kind of context their imagery will be used feels iffy.
The way Kasick goes about the editing, trying to tell a story full of twists and turns and gotchas, feels especially weird as this is one of the things that the film seems to accuse Emily itself of: using entertainment techniques to tell a story about real life characters, forgetting in the process that we are dealing with real people. By trying to make a film about the larger problem of yellow journalism in the true crime scene, it becomes what it accuses its own subject of making: a sensationalistic, insensitive, morally ambiguous and lurid piece of entertainment that feels hypocritical. With more nuance and less strong headed editing Citizen Sleuth could have really shined, and done justice to a person as thorny as Emily, and even more important, could've done justice to the story of the death of Jaleayah Davis.
- Chris Kasick
- Emily Nestor