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Two Sundance films revisit story of journalist Christine Chubbuck, who killed herself on air in 1974

January 26, 2016

Of all of the buzzed-about new films debuting this week at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, two of them have something strange in common: they both tell the story of a decades-old case involving a television news reporter who committed suicide on the air.

The two films, Christine and Kate Plays Christine, both tell the story of 29-year-old news reporter Christine Chubbuck; a smart, ambitious young journalist who was given her own community affairs show to anchor at her local news station in Sarasota, Florida, in 1974.

But Chubbuck was disillusioned with her station’s focus on sensationalist coverage of violent events, her brother Greg Chubbuck, told E! in a 2007 documentary about his sister. She thought “blood and guts” reporting took attention away from serious journalism. On July 15, 1974, Chubbuck read something she had personally written aloud on the air at the top of her broadcast. “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts, and in living color, you are going to see another first — attempted suicide,” Chubbuck said, before pulling out a handgun and shooting herself in the head.

The station cut to commercial break. Chubbuck had killed herself on the air, stunning the crew and viewers alike. The footage of the suicide was eventually turned over from the station to the police to Chubbuck’s family, who allegedly have destroyed it.

But now, more than four decades after the on-air suicide, two films are looking at Chubbuck’s life and death in feature films. Antonio Campos’ Christine stars Rebecca Hall in a fictional telling of Chubbuck’s story, while Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine takes a loosely-documentary approach as it follows actress Lyn Sheil preparing to portray Chubbuck in a film. Christine is playing in the festival’s U.S. Dramatic Competition, and Kate Plays Christine in U.S. Documentary Competition.

Greene told Business Insider that he first learned of her story 10 years ago, around 2006, and couldn’t get it out of his had. He said he was obsessed by two things: “How do you make a film about someone who kills themselves?” and “I need to see the footage.”

“She went on television to commit suicide so people would see it, and that has been lost,” Greene told Business Insider. “There’s such pathetic irony to that.”

Campos told Indiewire that it was a “total coincidence” to have two films about Chubbuck at the film festival this year, but that there was perhaps some greater meaning to draw from the coincidence. “Maybe you could read into it in the fact that she is particularly relevant right now, or she seems more relevant than she’s ever felt before,” he said.

Indeed, Chubbuck’s explicit criticism of a media landscape dominated by coverage of violent events could be part of a broader cultural conversation happening in 2016 as much as it was in the 1970s. The 2014 film Nightcrawler, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, took as its subject a paparazzo photographer who made his living listening to a police scanner, running around Los Angeles trying to get footage of police and fire emergencies, and then selling the footage to a local news station trying to bring in higher ratings under the mantra “if it bleeds, it leads.”

And the subject matter of both Chubbuck films is eerily similar to the 1976 movie Network, by Paddy Chayefsky and Sydney Lumet, which depicts a news anchor on the verge of being fired for low ratings telling viewers he was going to kill himself, sending ratings through the roof and prolonging his career.

Greg Chubbuck said that his sister’s death could be seen as a “final statement of her rage against that kind of television.”

In her suicide note, she wrote that she wanted to commit suicide and wanted everyone to see it.

The films are both seeking wider distribution.