Dramatic fabrication has always been a large part of documentaries (even Robert J. Flaherty’s Nanook of the North was largely faked), but with Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine, the subject exists almost outside of itself, holding the audience on the boundary between real and fake. A shifting and intimate story about a woman divided, Greene’s manipulative investigation is a unique outlier on the fringes of documentary, and one that, like Nanook, will undoubtedly have a lasting impact on the genre’s future.
Kate Lyn Sheil may have a borderline unhealthy relationship with acting, but it is her passion. Having played many non-biographical roles, she forces herself to work outside of this narrow framework to inhabit her newest persona, Christine Chubbuck — a Sarasota newswoman who took her life, on air, in 1974. We follow Kate as she travels to Chubbuck’s Floridian home to dig up old footage of the depressed woman, and we share her frustration when she finds none. As Kate begins diving into her character’s psyche, walking the streets of Sarasota in a long brown wig, we quickly realize that there is no other movie about Chubbuck’s life — this is the film for which Sheil is preparing.
Framing a documentary around a central falsity may seem a bit like cheating, but Kate Plays Christine is not about making a movie, it is a testament to what actors go through to truly assume a personality. Too often are these faces of film reduced to one-word sentiments (Ms. Sheil hates her work being labelled as “subtle”) or simply derided for their efforts by people who haven’t any idea of how or why they chose to engage with a role. Watching as Kate starts assembling Chubbuck from the ground up, the audience comes to know the two women at the same time. In the end, we have been given all the pieces to the puzzle that is Kate’s Christine Chubbuck, yet the line between the two women has been irreparably blurred. Even when taken outside of the bizarrely melodramatic reenactments of Chubbuck’s final days, some of her personality undeniably sticks to Sheil. Frustration with trying to intimately know something unknowable (that is to say, another person that you’ve never met) fuses with depression and the pressures of being an actor, ultimately producing a harrowing figure caught on screen.
Approaching his subject on two fronts, Greene seems to revel in the subject of fading legend. The subject of suicide is a touchy one, especially when committed during a live broadcast, but the memories of Christine Chubbuck are few and far between. Opinions, however, are a different story. Speaking with orange-faced newsmen, protective gun shop owners and beach-worn women, Greene quickly finds that each has an opinion on the act (and even about the kind of person who would commit such an act) but no memory of the woman herself. Perhaps summed up best by a local Sarasota historian, “You die two times. Once, and then again the last time someone says your name,” as Christine Chubbuck is nearly all but erased from history. All that remains is a stunning act, a frozen moment that is her last tether to the world she left behind more than 40 years ago.
Moving into uncharted territory, Robert Greene continues to experiment with the documentary form in new and exciting ways. Kate Plays Christine finds itself at the at intersection of reality and performance art, but no matter how fabricated the precursor, the emotional core remains intact and exceptionally powerful.
Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of London, England. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.