One of the best things about attending film festivals – such as this year’s Sydney Film Festival – is the opportunity to explore the breadth of documentaries on display. It’s a stark contrast to the genre’s sparse representation in mainstream cinemas. The conventional critical wisdom would be to suggest that multiplex audiences tend to avoid the more intellectually rigorous documentaries in favour of the crash and bang of popcorn flicks.
There’s some truth in that assumption, no doubt. But having seen more than my fair share of documentaries in my few years as a film critic, I can sympathise with this antipathy towards docos. Simply put, a lot of documentaries aren’t especially interesting. Even the most lowbrow blockbuster tends to at least try for visual panache to enrapture its audience; too often, documentaries rely on a tired procession of talking heads, stock footage and occasional re-enactments to tell their stories. If those stories are sufficiently interesting, that’s fine, but after your fifth Alex Gibney doco it starts to wear you out.
The kind of documentary I’m interested in strives to transcend the limitations of their form through experimentation. In particular, I love films that interrogate – or obscure – the assumption of ‘truthfulness’ inherent in non-fiction filmmaking; think The Thin Blue Line or Stories We Tell or Jafar Panahi’s recent output. Thankfully, Sydney this year features films like Sonita and Kate Plays Christine; movies that have something more to say than you might expect from their loglines.
Sonita’s first half hour is appealing but not especially original. We come to know Sonita Alizadeh, an Afghanistani refugee and high school student living in Tehran. She has an assertive, charismatic personality, one you become very familiar with as a teacher (Sonita’s the kind of student that you like as long as she’s not in your classroom, basically). She loves pop music – her dream parents are Michael Jackson and Rihanna, and her bedroom has posters of Justin Bieber and Yas carefully sticky-taped to the wall – and she wants to be a rapper herself.
Over that first half hour, we observe the obstacles she faces. The financial challenges of trying to rent a space or film a music video. The legal challenges of obtaining the correct permits when she has no passport nor visa. The cultural challenges associated with her Afghani family, who plan to sell her off to a husband in order to afford a wife for her older brother.
This is a familiar tale. One with a cloud of fatalism hanging over the proceedings. As the obstacles mount, the optimistic narrative – “girl overcomes disadvantages to succeed against all odds” – is increasingly overshadowed by a the gloomier notion of potential crushed by a patriarchal, unsympathetic society.
And perhaps that’s how the story would have gone. But it’s at this point that director Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami reveals that isn’t simply the story of Sonita; it’s the story of Sonita and Rokhsareh. The director introduces herself into the narrative when Sonita asks her to turn the camera off, wanting to remove her scarf and go to sleep. Gently, Ghaemmaghami challenges the assumptions behind Sonita’s request – “It’s not decent for me to be without a scarf. Not in a film!” – encouraging her to recognise that her family is not necessarily an unquestionable authority.
As the film progresses, Ghaemmaghami’s role in the narrative grows. She allows Sonita to handle the camera, allowing Ghaemmaghami to appear in the film herself. She stakes Sonita’s family money – some two thousand dollars – to postpone her marriage for a few months. Soon, the director’s assisting in a quest to find the young girl a passport and take her away to America, while coaching her to ensure that she doesn’t reveal anything to her family.
The ethical quandaries are numerous and unmistakable but, of course, that’s the point. Sonita encourages its audience to consider the role of the documentarian and the potential of the artist. Would Sonita have its ‘happy’ ending without Ghaemmaghami’s intervention? (And is it a happy ending to forsake her family’s traditions?) Would Sonita have achieved success without a film director whisking away from a forced marriage, without a professional filming the video clip that becomes her breakthrough?
Sonita might be an imperfect film – it often skews towards the didactic (much like Sonita’s raps, though that might just be clumsy translating) and a handful of conversations feel like they’ve been clumsily re-enacted for the camera – but as a conversation starter, it’s compelling. It challenges our assumptions: assumptions about the obligations of a filmmaker, about the importance of tradition, about the notion of talent as sufficient to overcome obstructions. Perhaps most importantly, it discards the assumption of impartiality. If the observer effect is unavoidable, it’s nice to see a director acknowledge, rather than elide, her own role in the story she’s telling.
Robert Greene’s presence in Kate Plays Christine is negligible when contrasted with Sonita, but his fingerprints are unmistakable. Kate Plays Christine is putatively about Christine Chubbuck, a news reporter who committed suicide on air in the ‘70s, but – like Greene’s previously films, Actress and Fake It So Real – it’s primarily interested in interrogating the artifice inherent in both acting and filmmaking.
The focus of the film quickly shifts from Christine’s story to that of Kate Lyn Shell, an actress hired to portray Christine in …something? It remains unclear throughout the film whether Kate’s performance is intended for a separate production or if it’s merely a fiction concocted for the purpose of observing her preparation process.
Greene cultivates this kind of ambiguity throughout the film. For example, Kate visits a gun salesman early on, allegedly to understand how to play Christine buying the gun she used to kill herself. Why then, do we see the scene twice? Is she performing as herself in both instances, or as Christine during her second conversation with the clerk? When Greene’s camera watches Kate standing stiffly, as though lost in thought, in the gun shop, is he capturing an authentic moment? Or is she playing Christine in this moment? Or has he asked her to play the scene intending to evoke exactly this sort of ambiguity? Such questions are left unanswered, and are further complicated by the implication that the gun salesman may have been the same man who sold the real Christine the gun some decades ago. (Or is he simply another actor?)
Occasionally, Greene explicitly acknowledges the layers of artifice on display. After Kate is filmed pacing her kitchen, voicing her thoughts on Christine’s character, she explains, “The way I would do this as an actor is to be sitting at that table writing down these differences and internalising them rather than delivering them to you in a monologue. Until I make all of this stuff – this wig and this make up and the clothes – feel as natural as possible, I feel like I’m playing dress-up. It makes me feel really uncomfortable.”
That discomfort lingers. The artificiality of Kate’s appearance – the wig, the coloured contacts, the make-up, the assumed facial stiffness – is exaggerated by the process of watching her accrue these attributes. Would her wig look as fake had we not watched her fitted for it? And does it still look as fake by the end of the film? Has the accumulation of artificiality produced authenticity, or sabotaged it?
That question is, I think, key to understanding Kate Plays Christine’s provocative final scene. In offering up something more akin to Funny Games or, perhaps, Cherry Tree (Kiarostami is an obvious influence), Greene explicitly challenges his audience. It’s the kind of conclusion that will incite diverse and divisive opinions. But I think to read it on the surface level – as an outraged rejection of voyeuristic viewers – is a mistake. If that is Green’s intent, it’s a facile argument, particularly in the wake of a film that primarily focused on the process of preparing a performance rather than the life (and death) of Christine Chubbuck.
I’m more inclined to interpret the final scene and its jarring falseness as an overt admission that the title of the film is misleading. This isn’t Kate plays Christine, this is Kate plays Kate plays Christine; the version of Kate Lyn Shell we see here is itself a performance. Maybe only a slight performance – in how she adjusts her preparation for Greene’s camera – or perhaps a performance entirely conceived and scripted by Greene. (I tend to think the latter; the final monologue, in particular, feels scripted as hell to me.) It’s a compelling rejection of documentary authenticity; I only wish that there was a little bit more support within the text for this reading. (I had similar qualms about Actress, which tended to overwhelm its reflections on reflexivity and performance with old-fashioned banality.)
While Sonita and Kate Plays Christine each tackle the limitations of their form in unique, interesting ways, there’s a lot more to them beyond reflections on authenticity. Both documentaries, for instance, address sexism …in entirely different ways, granted. Sonita consistently discusses the challenges of opposing the patriarchy in Iran and Afghanistan alike, whether it’s a pubescent girl beaten by her brothers until she accepts a marriage to a man twice her age or a young singer banned from performing because she’s a girl.
Kate Plays Christine offers some similarly unsubtle commentary throughout, particularly when chronicling the misogyny Chubbuck encountered within her workplace (and without – an article about her suicide described her as “mannish”!). But that’s contrasted with the subtle way Greene emphasises the male gaze in his depiction of Kate, whether he’s filming her swimming in a bikini or getting a spray tan, half-nude. Like much of the film around it, it’s unclear how intentional this is – but sometimes a bit of ambiguity is just what a documentary needs to stand out from the crowd.