Kate Plays Christine is a documentary about a young woman, Kate Sheil, researching to play the role of Christine Chubbuck, the young Sarasota, Florida, news anchor who killed herself on live television in 1974, in a low budget, soap opera version of Chubbuck’s story. (The film they are making is a different film than the biopic of Christine Chubbuck’s life and death, Christine, which is also playing at Sundance this year.) We watch Sheil reading news reports about Chubbuck’s death, talking with people who knew her, digging up old news footage, being fitted for costumes, and rehearsing for and filming the movie.
In addition to trying to figure out who Christine Chubbuck was and how she moved and sounded, Sheil is trying to decide why the story of Chubbuck’s suicide is a story worth filming. She is as interested in why Chubbuck killed herself as she is in how she did it, and as she researches, she’s increasingly concerned with whether or not we, contemporary society, should be interested in seeing her suicide reenacted. Everyone she talks to in Sarasota has a different opinion.
Kate Plays Christine makes the audience aware of the acting process. The film is showing a performance. In a couple of scenes, the film suggests that we’re also watching a performance when Sheil is talking tot he camera about the role. So at times, we’re watching at least two layers of performance. This makes us question what truth is at ever moment, and it makes us aware of our own status as the audience. It makes us question why we’re watching both this documentary and why we might want to see either a recreation of Chubbuck’s suicide or the event itself.
The film begins with the title appearing on screen in reverse order – Christine – Plays – Kate. The personality of Christine Chubbuck does indeed “play” or “manipulate’ Kate as the documentary progresses and Kate Sheil goes deeper and deeper into Chubbuck’s personality. By extension, Christine also manipulated her audience in 1974 when she killed herself. She’s manipulating us now. And Kate is playing or “manipulating” us as well. Kate Plays Christine complicates the relationship between performer and audience by making us aware of it.
Why would we want to see a reenactment of a horrible event like Chubbuck’s suicide? One reason we make and watch movies is to try to understand people and events that mystify us. There are few human acts less comprehensible than suicide. That incomprehensibility is compounded by how public Chubbuck made her suicide. Sheil is given a lot of answers as to why Chubbuck might have killed herself. None of them prove satisfying. How could they? A human being is an infinite creature. No amount of research can ever yield the entire person. Christine proves this as well, albeit accidentally. Kate Play Christine proves it on purpose.