Cinematic-Nonfiction: Blurring Fact and Fiction To Shed New Light with Kate Plays Christine’s Robert Greene

06/08/2016 at 9:00 am / 0 Comments

Isabella McNeill, Critics Campus 2016

“I just think we should be questioning what we’re doing,” says filmmaker Robert Greene. It’s a mantra that informs every aspect of his filmmaking process and each of his films. “Anyone who tells anyone else’s stories should be questioning relentlessly the impact of making images … So I’ve tried to make a movie that interrogates itself to death. It’s like it has a parasite attached to it by its own making, and it eats itself alive as you watch.”

Greene’s latest project, Kate Plays Christine, is grounded in the story of Christine Chubbuck, a Sarasota-based journalist who shot herself live on morning television in 1974. There is nothing conventional about Kate Plays Christine. The documentary investigates Chubbuck’s life and the possible motivations for her death via actress Kate Lyn Sheil’s attempts at preparing to portray her in a film.

Whilst the film she is readying for is not real, Greene’s documentary includes 70s soap opera–esque vignettes that give audiences a glimpse into brief moments of Christine’s life. Despite the unprecedented, shocking nature of her death, details about Chubbuck prove frustratingly difficult to uncover. “The lack of information was why we made the film,” Greene notes. “Meaning I wanted to make a film that failed because it didn’t have the information. Normally in documentaries the interviews are meant to move you forward with this knowledge. And in our movie, the interviews are a kind of wall that goes up, slightly blocking what we’re seeing, obscuring what is there.”

Greene believes in crossing the line that divides fiction and documentary, and the filmmaker also wants to challenge what is truth. The most concrete account of Christine’s death can be found in an article written by Sally Quinn for The Washington Post. Sheil reads the article in a potent monologue intercut through the film, while also relaying her own interpretation of how the world viewed Christine. The excruciating detail within Quinn’s article, despite the journalist not having seen the tragedy, does not get lost on Greene: “She writes about it in such detail that you know she is making some of it up … She probably interviewed someone who told her what colour dress she wore and we don’t know more than ‘a black and white printed dress’ but that simple detail of a journalist creating a narrative out of fragments of interviews is the nature of journalism. And so we’re just trying to make you question that as a process. Not to say that’s correct, or even truthful, but to say when you see Kate fretting over a black and white printed dress: ‘Is that the right one? Or is that the right one?’ That’s a big part of it.”

Greene readily acknowledges the influence of iconic filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, who famously believed that watching film should never be a passive experience. “What is magical about Kiarostami is that it’s a starting place for a truly spiritual creation. He’s not saying, ‘See, look, it’s all a movie. Full stop.’ He’s saying, ‘We know it’s a movie. We know that there are performances, there are manipulations, there is editing. So let’s lay that out upfront and then let’s go to a place that is a material that you can only get through cinema.’” Similarly to the films of Kiarostami, Kate Plays Christine reveals every intricacy that goes into its construction, and that doesn’t detract from an engagement with Christine’s story. 

But Greene refuses to believe he is leading a charge in this new resurgence of films that blur the line between fact and fiction, a canon which also includes the likes of Joshua Oppenheimer (The Act of Killing, MIFF 13, and The Look of Silence, MIFF 15) and Sarah Palley (Stories We Tell, MIFF 13). “I’m definitely following a charge,” he says. “I think Godard said ‘every film is a documentary of actors acting’, and I remember hearing that when I was 22 and in my undergraduate at university and just thinking, that’s it.”

Amongst the vignettes that try to recreate Christine’s life, we see Kate trying on clothes, wigs, and even getting a spray tan in order to mimic Chubbuck – and each moment does carry a definite constructed nature. Greene describes this as “constructing a platform … constructing a fictional box where all this can happen.” Just as Kiarostami utilised the real-life subjects of his films to re-enact his scenes, Greene wants to ensure his film’s legitimately lies in the realm of documentary. "It does matter to me that I didn’t make up the final moments of Kate Plays Christine. I didn’t go in saying we’re going to end this way, because if I did, it would be a fiction film … The movie needs to use that as a jumping off point for all these sort of investigations of bigger questions.”

Greene isn’t a fan of the word hybrid, but he embraces the film’s documentary-drama title. He prefers his own term, ‘cinematic-nonfiction’. Greene notes, “I think it’s important for audiences to know what they’re getting into, and I think all of it is a matter of creating a space where the work that you’re going to do anyway will be seen and understood by people.”

In an article for The Guardian in 2009, Kiarostami wrote, “I’ve often noticed that we are not able to look at what we have in front of us, unless it’s inside a frame.” And this sentiment is undeniably shared by Greene’s view of the documentary: “Knowing it’s alive, that sort of thing, which is very self-aware and intellectual, somehow doesn’t cap the experience, it opens it up. And I just find those movies to be endlessly absorbing and relevant to my life.”

Want to know more about Christine Chubbuck? You can catch MIFF’s other film about Chubbuck’s life and death, Christine, on Sat 6 Aug 9.15pm at Hoyts and on Fri 12 Aug 9pm at Comedy Theatre.

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