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Movies, dining and things to do / Spokane and North Idaho

Two unique documentaries deal with death

As part of our ongoing efforts on the Spokane Public Radio show "Movies 101," my partner Nathan Weinbender and I reviewed a couple of unique documentary films that we saw online. Following is the review that I wrote of both films:

Who among us hasn’t, at one time or another, gaped at some catastrophic event with – what? – fascination? A feeling of guilt? Thankfulness that whatever was going on didn’t involve us?

Maybe all we did was stare through the flashing lights beaming from a road-side car accident as we drove slowly past. Or paid closer attention to some TV reporter standing in front of a burning house. Certainly we all paid as much attention as we could 17 years ago to the news clips that were broadcast ad nauseam of planes flying into the towers of the World Trade Center.

How could we not? In this experience we call the human condition, bad things do happen. And like wildebeest migrating across the Serengeti, we watch as the lions pick off the unlucky, maybe cross ourselves, then get on with our own lives.

That basic human quality is what two recent documentaries, both of which can be found online, use to explore stories that made national headlines. And in both cases, that quality is both examined – and exploited.

The first documentary is the Netflix offering “Casting JonBenet,” which tells the sad story of JonBenet Ramsey, the 6-year-old beauty pageant queen who on the day after Christmas, 1996, was found murdered in her Boulder, Colorado, home. As the 20-year anniversary of the crime passed with no break in the case – even though over the years suspicion has fallen on the girl’s father, mother, brother and even all three at once – TV news reports again trotted out all the principals, and even offered new suggestions as to what really happened.

But this strange documentary, written and directed by Australian-born filmmaker Kitty Green, takes a different tack. Using actual Boulder residents, Green constructs her film as an ongoing casting process – with multiple actors up for various roles, from family members to police officers and even, believe it or not, Santa Claus.

Many of the actors do offer their opinions on what happened, though their views are far less interesting than they are themselves – one of whom flails a whip while describing himself as a professional quote-unquote sex educator.

In similar fashion, the 2016 documentary “Kate Plays Christine” – which I watched courtesy of iTunes –  revolves around Christine Chubbuck, the Sarasota, Florida, television reporter who committed suicide onscreen in 1974.

Written and directed by Robert Greene – no relation to Kitty Green – “Kate Plays Christine” follows New York actress Kate Lyn Sheil as she auditions for Greene’s movie, is hired and then begin the long process of figuring out who Chubbuck was. Her intent, she explains, is to immerse herself into Chubbuck’s character so that she can give a believable portrayal.

Both these documentaries prove to be fascinating projects, delving as they do not just on the central topics – incidents involving pain and anguish familiar to us all – but on our ongoing fascination with them. They are exploitation, something that both films suggest, if not actually state, is largely their underlying point.

Whether that point manages to be anything more than mere voyeurism, though, is a question viewers will have to answer all on their own.