The struggle to make a podcast has plagued most content producers. Yet in each show, there’s always a chance that you step over an ethical line. For True Crime podcasts, this issue is amplified. Not only do you have a story to tell, but the names used will change the lives of those you mention. Director Chris Kasick investigates one such…well, investigator. In Citizen Sleuth, Kasick questions the true crime industry and attempts to understand why we look for these conspiracies.
For Emily Nestor, the case of Jaleayah Davis sparked extreme interest. Nestor lives in a small town in Appalachia, unable to attend college. For years she idolized Clarice Starling from The Silence of the Lambs, and wanted to become a detective in her own right. When presented with the facts of Davis’ death. Nastor became fixated on who killed the twenty-year-old girl when Davis’ passing was ruled part of a self-inflicted car accident. However, as Nestor garners acclaim, her motivations become less evident by the day.
The phenomenon of true crime, and the iffy ethics of creating the content, has long garnered debate. After all, when money begins exchanging hands, questions about objectivity quickly make waves. Kasick wisely turns his documentary about a podcast into a documentary about the over-arching industry that continues to grow. With conventions and mini-celebrities popping up throughout these events, it’s no surprise that someone has monetized it. For example, a simple ad recommending a product is placed in an episode alongside a discussion about someone’s murder. This inherently uses the death of another human for personal gain.
The camera turns into a character study, following Nestor as she navigates this new industry. Now, true crime reaches more ears than ever before, and even a smaller show like “Mile Marker 181” can reach the Top 20 of the podcast world. When one case closes, another is there for an audience to discover and chew through. For Nestor, the experience becomes overwhelming, and her overnight celebrity sends shockwaves through her life.
It’s clear that Nestor got onto the case for good reasons. At first, we see her decline ads, only to be slowly corrupted into adding them. She tries to get interviews with all the parties of interest but never discusses the case with the three people she accuses. Along the way, she considers herself a journalist, but as the story gets bigger, her choices tend to move towards creating sensational content. She goes from idolizing Clarice to idolizing Nancy Grace. No statement feels more damning.
Kasick attempts to dissect the bigger issues at play. It’s ultimately the final twenty minutes that solidify the messages presented. Where Nestor failed in some regard, Kasick picks up the slack. The story creates a clearer shape of what happened and why conspiracies begin permeating. Kasick does not attack those who live in Appalachia. Instead, he turns the camera away from a small town in Ohio and onto the general population.
Toward the end of the documentary, Citizen Sleuth reminds us of an honest truth: the industry will move on to the next one. Even with their investigation of Nestor and the conspiracy around the death of Jaleayah Davis, the listener will satiate their thirst for more. Why do we find ourselves entertained and exhilarated by deaths in our own communities? Jaleyah Davis left behind a grieving family. Whether her death is an accident or a murder, should someone make money off something so tragic? Will that money do anything to change the next tragedy? These powerful ethical quandaries help Citizen Sleuth feel like one of the most important documentaries of 2023.