Sundance 2016: ‘Kate Plays Christine’ is a Fascinating, if Manipulative, Look at Sensationalism and Reenactment

Kate Plays Christine
Directed by Robert Greene
U.S., 2016

One of the interesting things about Sundance this year is that two different films about the same subject matter have screened. In 1974 in Sarasota, Florida, TV reporter Christine Chubbuck shot herself on camera, an incident that reportedly served as an inspiration for Network. There was a narrative feature Christine from Antonio Campos starring Rebecca Hall as Chubbuck, following the final weeks of her life, and there is Kate Plays Christine, following actress Kate Lyn Sheil as she prepares and investigates the role of Chubbuck for a film. I was lucky enough to be able to see both films at the festival, and it would be a disservice to both works to sit here and debate which one is better. Both films are after different goals, and both work in different, fascinating ways to achieve them. While Christine is a haunting character study, Kate Plays Christine seeks to understand why it is we are so compelled to see gratuitous and sensationalized images, and whether or not we should want to see them.

Kate Lyn Sheil has has spent her career hopping around the independent and genre film community, consistently giving great performances. I chuckled that she mentioned she was sick of reviews calling her performances subtle – she does subtlety so well! Director Robert Greene tracks her as she does research for the role in Sarasota and gets closer into the mindset of Christine Chubbuck. I was sort of relieved to find out at a certain point in the film that the film Sheil was playing the role of Chubbuck in was only for the purpose of this documentary, as it looked incredibly cheap and shameful.

What filming fictional scenes does, however cheap and heightened as they may be, is open up Sheil to several bizarre layers of performance that is fascinating to watch. She is performing the scenes that are scripted, but is also in a manner performing her own reactions to the scenes as she has outbursts where she yells at everyone at how disrespectful and ridiculous these scenes are to the memory of Chubbuck. Then you add to it the question of just how much general performance goes on when she’s on camera as herself, answering questions and talking about her process of investigation and getting into character. It’s a multi-tiered, compelling juggling act of Sheil’s that Greene captures captivatingly. Kate Plays Christine almost begs the question: can somebody in a documentary film be nominated for best performance?

One incredibly interesting aspect that Kate Plays Christine delves into is the sort of paradox that Chubbuck has become. Chubbuck resented the sensational “if it bleeds, it leads” type of journalism that TV was heading towards, yet died in the most sensational, televised way possible. A curious thing about Chubbuck is that no footage of her exists online, and seemingly only one photograph can be found. She’s attained a sort of mythical status, and the footage of her death is even more of a sort of urban legend, supposedly locked away in a vault depending on who you ask. At one point, Sheil and Greene do happen to come into contact with someone who worked at the station back then who does have a tape of Chubbuck doing an interview. While showing the interview to Sheil, the man points out the inherent irony of Sheil being there. He never put the video online because people would only want to see it because of how Chubbuck died, not because of how talented she was. But curiously, as much respect as Sheil wants to pay to Chubbuck, he points out the only reason she knows about Chubbuck is because of how she died.

The whole film is building to the filming of the reenactment of her suicide, and is approached with great tension and uncertainty of what will happen. Will she go through with it? Can she go through with it? Will something worse happen? The only thing that assured me Sheil wouldn’t actually kill herself in the scene was that I was familiar with her work and career, and would have known if she was dead. The film is incredibly manipulative, but it is to a sobering and stirring point. I won’t recount the final moments of the film as they’re best experienced cold, but it serves as a direct question to the audience asking why we are so intrigued by violent and sensational images. It’s powerful, if manipulatively achieved.

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