DOCUMENTARY REVIEW: Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel

One of my best friends lives in Latvia. Over the last couple of months, we’ve been collectively facing the pandemic woes by using Teleparty to watch true crime documentaries together. We make a big ceremonial night of it on a weekly basis, usually accompanied by drinks and snacks, and get comfortable so that we can get sucked into an immersive narrative and enjoy deep debates about morality, nature v nurture and trauma. This probably sounds utterly grim and I guess it is, but we were never really ones for idle chit-chat and typical “girly” stuff…

Now, the shocking entertainment factor is one thing, but the other very significant characteristic of a great true crime documentary is its ability to affect viewers so that they’re still caught up thinking about the show long after it has finished. The more exemplary shows on Netflix that have balanced these factors are: Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, Who Killed Little Gregory?, The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann and The Keepers. Recently, we added another to the list: we raced through Night Stalker in one sitting, impressed by the quality and nuances of the production and generally beguiled by the gruesome details of Richard Ramirez’s depravity during the mania of a pre-forensic technology era with multiple serial killers running free in the Los Angeles area. The most impressive takeaway from this show was the fact that it didn’t provide Ramirez himself with much sympathetic airtime at all and chose instead to highlight the emotional impact of his crimes upon his remaining survivors and the devastated family/friends who have had to deal, over the years, with the trauma of losing a loved one to an inhumane serial killer.

Tonight we concluded Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel. For those of you who aren’t familiar, this latest show from Netflix focuses on the mysterious death of twenty-one year old Elisa Lam, who was found in a state of advanced decomposition in a water tank atop the roof of Cecil Hotel around nineteen days after her reported disappearance from the same hotel in question. I, for one, had never heard of this case. However, when I mentioned it to other friends, they seemed to remember quite well the jarring footage of a disoriented-looking Lam in an elevator, seemingly talking to an invisible figure and behaving peculiarly, which was circulated while her case was being investigated. The investigation garnered critique on account of the fact there were blatant red flags (failing to identify a body on the premises for more than two weeks despite discoloured tap water) and also because of some suggestion that there could have been an element of foul play in Lam’s disappearance/death. This latter theory was particularly pushed by an online community of strangers who used the few resources available to them to start an investigation of their own.

In contrast to our feelings on other Netflix originals, we had our expectations completely and utterly dashed by this show on Elisa Lam, with us each stifling yawns from episode one all the way through to episode four. I wouldn’t recommend this to others and I rarely ever feel this is the case with something I feel is subjectively “not great”, however, I just didn’t feel like this documentary essentially had a point or that it illuminated anything about the Lam case that hadn’t already been unearthed in previous years. Now, there’s various reasons I feel this way:

Firstly, Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel is gratuitous, mis-informative and sensationalist. The documentary spends more time glorifying conspiracy theorists than it does actually investigating the case of Elisa Lam in detail, instead choosing to give the likes of John Sobhani a dangerous platform. You may be wondering why I have beef with this guy or who this Sobhani fellow even is: it transpires he’s presently a dental student who happens to moonlight as an web sleuth. Just to clarify: there are no qualifications required for this prestigious title of web sleuth, basically any Average Joe can feel like there’s something fishy going on in a current affairs investigation and turn to online forums/communities of other avid critics in the hopes of finding the “truth” themselves. In some cases, this works remarkably well (lest we forget: Don’t Fuck With Cats). In this case, it does not work at all. The documentary actually profiles a few different YouTubers/web sleuths, but it’s Sobhani I have a particular issue with, as he seems to insert himself into Lam’s life (obviously posthumously) in a really concerning way. Sobhani is featured throughout the documentary speaking of Lam as if he knew her personally, which I considered to be highly disrespectful to her real family and friends, who have had to deal with the highly publicised bereavement of a loved one. Also, Sobhani’s obsession with Lam is really uncomfortable to watch: he describes visiting Cecil Hotel 10 times after her death due to his fascination, speaks of her as if she died for a cause and has a friend visit her gravestone at a cemetery in Vancouver on his behalf, with this trip being video’d to capture the gravestone being touched by a proxy hand on behalf of Sobhani himself. I would understand if the producers featured him in a satirical way, a laughable way to highlight how ridiculous and invasive some conspiracy theorists/web sleuths can be, but I don’t think this was achieved at all in the final product.

Secondly, I also felt that the documentary seemed to miss the point about mental health entirely: at times, it felt like Lam and her known struggles with a history of depression/bipolar had been erased altogether from the narrative of the programme, and the emphasis was instead placed on talking about her erratic behaviour as a symbol of demonic possession or supernatural interference. Snippets of the same elevator scene were played over and over again, to unsettle viewers, but no accounts of Lam’s character were given by any people who actually knew her on a personal level and we were left with little to no depth with regards to the true extent of her mental health challenges. I kind of figured that archaic notions about mental health would be challenged more explicitly in a show as recently developed as this, yet instead, we still have producers capitalising on the outdated image of a foreign girl (read into it what you will) behaving weirdly and becoming a viral sensation because of it. Stigmatisation exists because of ignorance and general lack of understanding, but shows like this are not contributing towards a heightened awareness and sensitivity to these issues among the general public.

In my opinion, they could have achieved a more impactful message with two episodes focusing entirely on critiquing the social inequities that contribute to the disproportionate amounts of homicide, drugs abuse and general crime within the hotel. Cecil Hotel has garnered a bad name for its affiliation with numerous other serial killers and criminals over the years, there’s also been a number of suicides within its walls. I don’t, however, buy into this mythology of Cecil Hotel as the home of all evil. I think it’s a hub of criminal activity because it is the convenient neighbour for Skid Row folk. This is crucial because of its role as the assigned dumpster of LA: there are vulnerable people in all shapes and forms crammed into unsanitary conditions, still considered a step-up from Skid Row, and made to aspire for the lowliest of ambitions. They are unsupported, generally disregarded individuals that society doesn’t care to think about, and they have turned to the Cecil Hotel for shelter because it has historically offered rooms up at dirt-cheap rates, specifically to rustle up business by catering to these people.

Mental health is a pandemic which affects us all, but it can’t be disputed that among drug addicts, ex-convicts and the homeless population of Skid Row, there are thousands of undiagnosed and untreated mental illnesses that manifest in all sorts of terrible ways. The real purpose of the documentary ought to have been to highlight how the death of one mentally ill tourist managed to draw so much attention, yet how the casual status quo of shoot-outs, drugged-up frenzies and massacres in Skid Row don’t even conjure the batting of an eyelid. The fact that people ignored Lam’s blatant signs of mental illness and cries for help in the days leading up to her disappearance is disgraceful, but even more disgraceful than that is the fact that online keyboard warriors couldn’t accept her mental health as a factor for such a long time, but instead felt the need to chase up avenues like foul play, concealment and fucking demonic possession.

Moving forward, it would be nice to see true crime documentaries aligned more towards objectively outlining the courses of cases with key witness accounts from the people actually involved. It would also be nice to see docs where they’re respectfully speaking about victims, not giving YouTubers their 2-cents and full freedom to talk about complex issues they clearly have absolutely no knowledge about. If you want hearsay and theories founded on absolutely no valid evidence whatsoever, give this show a watch!

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