True crime podcasting is a spot of murky, ethically grey areas. For each rigorously researched reporting of a homicide thriller, there could be dozens more the place beginner sleuths dabble in plagiarism, wild hypothesis, and unchecked conspiracy theories, all whereas cracking jokes or refilling wine glasses. Such true crime followers turned content creators may see themselves as heroes for forgotten victims. But the slippery and complex documentary Citizen Sleuth exposes a darkish underbelly to those altruistic ambitions.
The protagonist of Citizen Sleuth is so on-the-nose of true crime podcasting cliches that she initially appears like a caricature. Emily Nestor, the host of the Mile Marker 181 podcast, is a younger white girl who initiatives various cool along with her messy bun, outsized eyeglasses, and smattering of tattoos, a few of which have been impressed by her ardour for true crime. You might say she wears her love of the style on her sleeve, however her tat of a coronary heart wrapped in a banner that reads “true crime” is definitely on her leg.
She showers reward on standard documentary shows like Making a Murderer and I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, however Nestor’s ardour for crime-solving was initially impressed by fictional FBI agent Clarice Starling of Silence of the Lambs. In that story of underestimated rural lady makes good, West Virginian Nestor noticed a path towards her own ardour for justice. So, when a weird demise sparks rumors of homicide, conspiracy, and cover-up, Nestor noticed her probability to make her dream come true. Never thoughts that she has not one of the coaching of an investigator or the boundaries of a journalist: She’s got a microphone and fervour, and that is sufficient to podcast.
What case does Citizen Sleuth observe?
On November 19, 2011, a 20-year-old Black girl from Marietta, Ohio, was discovered useless on the side of Interstate 77 in West Virginia. Authorities would decide a automotive crash to be the reason for Jaleayah Davis’s demise. But hypothesis started to rumble that the chums Davis partied with earlier that night time may have a role to play in her tragic end.
Curious particulars in regards to the situation of Davis’s body, the position of her garments, and the placement of her automotive spurred Nestor into motion, launching a podcast that aimed for uncovering darkish truths. “I read the case files,” she shares with Citizen Sleuth‘s filmmakers. “I was like what the hell? Murder. Cover-up. This needs to be handled. So, why not me?”
For 23 episodes, Nestor pursued the chances, interviewing Davis’s mom, questioning cops, unfurling her pet principle, and sharing private tales of her own. Citizen Sleuth begins up with Nestor as her podcast is on the rise, making her an rising luminary at true crime conventions and podcast meet-ups.
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Eager for consideration, Nestor welcomes documentarian Chris Kasick into her house and DIY podcasting studio, which incorporates her yarn wall and a modest foam field to enhance the sound high quality of her recording. Her family warmly regards her show as a useful passion and brag about her “gumption” in pursuing this ardour and not using a faculty education. However, in an aim to impress, Nestor begins to spill information in regards to the sufferer that’s embarrassing and never remotely related to the case. This twisted model of name-dropping serves as an early purple flag that this is not going to be a story of sleuthing heroics.
As Kasick accompanies Nestor to a real crime conference, the place podcasters giddily line as much as have footage shot of them smiling with their merch and props, Citizen Sleuth steadily slides away from glorifying these ambitions. Amid a sea of fame-seeking followers, precise detective Paul Holes — famend for his work cracking the Golden State Killer case — appears a beacon of cause. So, when Nestor scores an interview with him for her podcast, the place they evaluate notes over what they assume occurred to Davis, it may very well be a second of victory for the aspiring Starling. Instead, it is the place Citizen Sleuth takes its pivotal flip.
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In the third act, Nestor has fallen right into a problematic pitfall of true crime: exploitation. Her quest for the reality has yielded inconvenient solutions. To inform them might threat ending her podcast, which might also imply an end to the sponsorship offers that allowed her to stroll away from waitressing, to not point out her newfound role as idol to a rising — and demanding — fandom. The documentary crew presses her on the moral dilemma whereas addressing their own burgeoning considerations, as a result of a revelation from Holes calls into query their challenge as nicely.
The pressure of the final act of Citizen Sleuth comes not only from worrying about what Nestor will do however also questioning how her being filmed impacts her choice. With the cameras in her face, does really feel she pressed to carry out? Is this what sparks a flurry of (white girl) tears when questioned about her benefitting from the violent demise of a Black girl? Or does the edit being out of her arms push her to ruthless self-evaluation? And within these edits, the viewer may nicely marvel, what debates the filmmakers had in making — and even persevering with — their challenge after some significantly damning information involves gentle.
Some of essentially the most placing moments in Citizen Sleuth are when Kasick steps past Nestor and interviews her suspects, people who’d (understandably) by no means agreed to be on her podcast in any respect. Within these interviews, a sobering slap hits the giddy thrill of amateurs dabbling in true crime. While the documentary facilities on Nestor — and definitely does her few favors — it doesn’t mean she is an outlier in this booming business. Over the end credit play true crime podcasters chattering away in a cacophonic audio montage, urging the viewers to assume critically about their subsequent hear.
Riveting and unnerving as it’s uncompromising, Citizen Sleuth is a must-see for true crime followers.
Citizen Sleuth was reviewed out of its World Premiere at SXSW 2023.