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On July 15, 1974, Christine Chubbuck, a news reporter for Florida’s WXLT- TV network, committed suicide live on air. Before she took her life, she stated: “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in ‘blood and guts’, and in living color, you are going to see another first—attempted suicide”. The event has fallen somewhat into myth. Many Florida locals are now unaware it even happened and those that do, to this day, debate why Chubbuck took such drastic measures. Her statement indicated that she was angered by her news stations “if it bleeds, it leads” policy and wanted to make a grand statement. However, it is known that she also suffered from depression (an illness that was not as recognised then as it is now) and had endured personal set-backs leading up to the act.
One of the most multi-layered documentaries (or docu-dramas?) of recent memory, Kate Plays Christine sees the supremely talented indie darling Kate Lyn Sheil (House of Cards, Equals, The Girlfriend Experience) prepare to play Chubbuck in a biopic. In order to do so, she undergoes a physical and mental transformation, while also interviewing those close to the late reporter in order help understand the character. Her efforts are then interspersed with scenes from the biopic.
The film, directed by Robert Greene, intelligently tackles a lot of provocative themes. Perhaps most importantly, it’s about the responsibilities of depicting and portraying a real life incident and character (which is increasingly meta given a more straightforward drama about Chubbuck starring Rebecca Hall is on the way). Sheil speaks about how, above everything, she wants to respect the late reporter’s memory and not glorify or fetishize her suicide.
However, in order to do that, she must uncover the reasons why Chubbuck took her life. There are numerous possible interpretations. Was it her “distorted” method of alerting people to society’s fixation with violence? A grand statement attempting to raise awareness about depression? Perhaps it was just a cry for help, or all these things combined. The documentary takes on an almost investigative quality as she interviews those close to Chubbuck to try and find the answers, or at least, her own perspective on events to help with her performance.
The movie also sparks a debate. The people Sheil interviews contrast in opinion on whether Chubbuck’s actions provoked any change in media or depression awareness. Various talking heads in her profession argue that by sensationalising her actions, she actually became what she tried to critique. It’s worth noting that the majority of the people searching for footage of Chubbuck are seeking out her suicide tape.
On top of all this, one could equally read Kate Plays Christine as a female focused psychological thriller in the vein of Persona or the more recent Queen of Earth, on which Greene worked as editor. As the film continues, Sheil begins to discover many similarities between her and Chubbuck. Each of them have been described as having masculine features. Both are noted as having an “unhealthy” craving for reaction – Christine’s suicide is exemplary of this while Sheil states with contempt “If one more person describes a performance of mine as ‘subtle’ – I’ll lose my mind”. As the actress continues to act and look more and more like her, it’s as if Chubbuck’s ghost possesses her, causing the film, at times, to resemble a horror-esque riff on Birdman.
It’s an absorbing documentary that finds its drama not just in Chubbuck’s sadness or Sheil’s attempt to replicate it, but in both, and the boundaries that separate the two. As an introduction to the phenomenal Sheil or the fascinating Chubbuck, it succeeds both ways and may be the most daring experimental and thought provoking film of recent memory.
Kate Plays Christine is out now. The trailer can be viewed below.