SXSW Film Review: Citizen Sleuth

Doc is a dogged investigation of true-crime podcasting

Emily Nestor, host of the Mile Marker 181 podcast (Courtesy of Chris Kasick & Jared Washburn)

From the moment true-crime podcaster Emily Nestor comes onscreen, you can see why director Chris Kasick wanted to make a film about her.

The bright, witty, and articulate Appalachian twentysomething seems wise beyond her years, and she’s ambitious, with a goal of solving a mystery like Nancy Drew by doing her own investigation. In Citizen Sleuth (which premiered at SXSW yesterday), Kasick follows her over several years, chronicling the rise and fall of the podcast and its plucky young host.

Nestor’s podcast, Mile Marker 181, investigated the mysterious death of 20-year-old Jaleayah Davis. Her body was discovered near the site of a car crash on West Virginia’s Interstate 77 in 2011, and her death was ruled accidental. Yet some bizarre circumstances indicated it might not have been an accident after all, and the podcast pointed toward possible corruption in the police force and the possibility that Davis’ friends may have been responsible for her death.

As Citizen Sleuth shows, the town’s rumor mill was churning furiously. However, Nestor was committed to putting the rumors to rest and finding the truth, despite having not a shred of training in any aspect of the project she was taking on.

Mile Marker 181 was very DIY, with Nestor cleverly creating her own home studio and storyboarding the podcast on living room walls in a very organized fashion, and initially producing with no advertisements. The doc takes us on a journey from these humble beginnings to CrimeCon, where Nestor meets true-crime superstar Nancy Grace, to an important conversation with investigator Paul Holes, and to meetings with the community, the sheriff, and key players in the story.

Our young sleuth faces ethical questions along the way, and learns how the choices you make when reporting on the worst day of someone’s life can have a ripple effect beyond what you could’ve imagined. You can see Nestor’s earnestness in how she struggles with questions like, “Is it OK to have advertising on a podcast about someone’s death?” and, “How do you tell people something they don’t want to hear?” Being shot over several years, there’s a true character arc as Nestor toes the line between investigation and entertainment and comes to wonder, “I don’t even know if I’m a good person anymore.”

True crime isn’t going anywhere, and narratives about murders capture our attention, for obvious reasons. And sometimes telling these stories leads to positive outcomes, like justice for the victim. But Citizen Sleuth reminds us that there is a responsibility to true-crime storytelling, and that the falsely accused are also victims. In fact, you can no longer listen to Mile Marker 181 – Nestor pulled the podcast in 2021, saying she was “no longer proud of the work.”

This thought-provoking documentary is essential viewing for any amateur detective who’s wondered if they might be the Nancy Drew to get to the bottom of a case, or any true-crime junkie who consumes material related to these important stories. Is it exploitative, is it entertainment, is it investigative? The search for truth may be noble, but at what cost?

Citizen Sleuth

Documentary Spotlight, World Premiere

Mon 14, 2:45pm, Alamo South Lamar A
Fri 17, 12:45pm, Stateside Theatre

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