Warning: This blog article talks about suicide and may be distressing for some readers.
Ten years ago, director Robert Greene first heard the tragic story of Christine Chubbuck - a smart but troubled young TV reporter in Florida, who went on to become the first person to commit suicide on live television in 1974.
A serious journalist with investigative ambitions and a feel for community, Chubbuck’s passion was to report on issues that affected real human lives, and she despaired about the rise of sensationalism in the press. She was also reportedly very lonely, a twenty-nine-year-old virgin who lived with her mother and had a crush on a colleague who rejected her and was involved with another woman on staff. She also had medical issues - she had had an ovary removed whilst quite young, which she was told would make it difficult for her to conceive a child. Needless to say she suffered from depression, but was being treated for it.
Under pressure from her news director to increase ratings, the station’s reporting had veered toward the sensational and toward crime, a factor that dominates - along with Donald Trump – most of our news today. In her on-air suicide note, Chubbuck even referred directly to “Channel 40's policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts.” In the weeks before her death, she apparently joked with co-workers about killing herself live on air, as a “nifty” way to improve ratings. Three weeks before her death, she asked to do a feature on suicide and visited the local sheriff’s office to research suicide methods, but in that age, this bought up no red flags. Also, this sort of dark humour was reportedly far from unusual for the troubled but extraordinarily clever young woman: Jean Reed, the camerawoman who was working the morning Chubbuck shot herself, told a Washington Post reporter in 1974 that, “She had a great sense of the absurd, almost a macabre sense of humour.”
She eventually killed herself during the newsreel that preceded her morning current affairs programme on July 15th 1974. And although fewer than a thousand viewers watched her show, within hours of the shooting, the story made headlines in New York, Tokyo, London and Sydney: “TV Star Kills Self”, “TV Personality Takes Own Life On Air”, “On Air Suicide”. Though some have speculated that she killed herself due to her depressive episodes, Chubbuck’s brother, Greg, has long painted a different picture. She really didn’t want her death to be meaningless. “That salacious part of television, Chris detested,” he has said in interviews. “Was her final action a raging statement against that sort of television? Yes, clearly it was.”
When Greene first heard Chubbuck’s story and decided it could make for a film, he says he never wanted to make a straightforward story. Part documentary, part fictionalised narrative, it instead explores Chubbuck through actress Kate Lyn Sheil (best known for House of Cards), as she prepares for a role that will drain all of her resources. Recognising that a film about Chubbuck is always going to be a film about her on-air suicide, Greene decided to centre KATE PLAYS CHRISTINE on the difficulty of re-creating the videotape of the event, which is known to exist but has never been made public. TV broadcasts, especially local news programs in Sarasota, Florida, weren't regularly recorded at the time, but before she went on the air that last night, Chubbuck asked a coworker to make sure that evening's broadcast was taped, purportedly for her audition reel. Whether or not that grisly tape still exists is up for the debate – it has pretty much passed into the realm of urban myth. The station's owner is said to have kept the only copy under lock and key, with his widow giving it into the care of "a very large law firm”. Obscenely, those who claim to have seen it can give no plausible explanation of how or where, which makes it all even more bizarre.
It’s fascinating and wrenching to watch as Shiel is sucked downwards into the depression that consumed the “character” (for want of a better word) that she is playing, and as for the suicide scene? The less I describe, the better. It’s interesting that in the same year as this was originally released another film about Chubbuck, Antonio Campos’s CHRISTINE was also unveiled to the public. Campos’s film stars Rebecca Hall and is a straightforward drama, following Christine (the character, to distinguish her from the real-life Chubbuck) through the troubled events of the last few months of her life, condensing them and organising them so that they culminate in the one action for which the reporter is remembered.
It’s sad that 43 years later, the young journalist’s case and her death still fascinate many of us. Is that a symptom of the desire for sensationalism that Chubbuck died protesting? In a world where empathy so easily turns into rubbernecking, Christine Chubbuck is apparently still making the news.
KATE PLAYS CHRISTINE premieres on Thursday 3 August at 8.30pm
Watch trailer here
Remote record here
Where to get help:
In an emergency: Call 111.
Crisis, Assessment and Treatment Team at Lakes DHB: 0800 166 167.
Lifeline: 0800 543 354.
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865.
Youthline: 0800 376 633, or text 234 or firstname.lastname@example.org or live chat (7pm to 11pm). Kidsline: 0800 543 754.
Whatsup: 0800 942 8787.
Depression helpline: 0800 111 757.
Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155 (weekdays 11am to 5pm).
NetSafe: 0508 NETSAFE (0508 638 723), www.theorb.org.nz