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The Berlinale Blog: Gibney and Greene investigate

Two contemporary documentary filmmakers go face to face: the Oscar-winning Alex Gibney and director Robert Greene. One opens your eyes to cyber-espionage; the other will have you wondering what is staged and what isn’t.

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Zero Days

“We came so fucking close to disaster and we’re still on the edge.”

Words that resonate and will stay with you after watching Zero Days.

Following last year’s brilliant Scientology exposé Going Clear, Alex Gibney has decided for his latest documentary to tackle a “hideously over-classified” subject: Stuxnet, the computer virus developed by the US and Israel to sabotage Iran’s nuclear programme. His investigative journey comprehensively takes us through how a joint-intelligence operation turned on its creators, who not only unleashed a digital monster but also flirted with all out cyberwarfare.

Granted, the majority of filmgoers willingly zone-out at the mere mention of “data payloads”, “malware” and “digital viruses” but Gibney makes it all disturbingly engaging, to the extent a lot of Zero Days plays out like a spy thriller, in part thanks to Will Bates’ threatening musical score. The revelatory material features talking heads, ranging from senior Mossad operatives to a mysterious NSA source; they impress due to the sheer amount of access the filmmaker obtained and because of some handsomely crafted – and slightly Lawnmower Man-cum-Hackers reminiscent (though updated) – visuals.

Beyond Stuxnet, this disquieting documentary is also an exploration of the evolution of warfare: how humanity has proudly taken itself from the trenches to chemical weaponry, from nuclear threats to cyberwar. It’s enough to erode even the most fervent faith in systems and much like Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour had people hurrying home to put some masking tape on their laptop cameras, Zero Days will open eyes to the policies of secrecy governments are so fond of.  

(Mulder and Scully did warn us… But did we listen? Noooooo…)

The final reveal regarding the identity of the foul-mouthed NSA source is excellent and shall not be spoilt here. However, it ties in neatly with another documentary worth your time: Kate Plays Christine.  

July 15, 1974. Twentynine-year-old news reporter Christine Chubbuck commits suicide live on television. Her last words: “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts, and in living colour, you are going to see another first: attempted suicide.”

“Attempted” because she couldn’t be sure she’d succeed.

Some shrewd journalism right there.

She did succeed and her act made the headlines the next day, but the story got quickly relegated to a broadcast anecdote. Fortytwo years later – and having allegedly inspired the 1976 film Network – the name Christine Chubbuck has come back in public consciousness: two films, both having premièred at Sundance, tackle her story. Berlin only gets one, but who are we to complain when the result is this compelling.

Robert Greene’s daring, multi-layered approach to the material takes the spectator on a recursive trip: the director blurs fact and fiction as we follow actress Kate Lyn Sheil (of House of Cards fame) researching her next role. She is preparing to play Christine in a cheap-looking TV soap and we follow her process of immersion; she chats to people who knew Chubbuck, gets fitted for lenses, purchases a wig and even traces her footsteps back to the gun store where Chubbuck bought the revolver. Sheil’s commitment to understanding Chubbuck’s frame of mind and wanting to respect without glorifying her is adequately described as “compulsive”. So much so that Laurence Olivier would have given her the same advice he gave Dustin Hoffman on the set of Marathon Man: “Why not try acting? It’s much easier.”

This faux making-of documentary works on so many levels. Kate Plays Christine is a film about an actor’s desire to do justice to the part she’s given, and you can’t take your eyes off of Sheil for a single second. It’s also a film about the nature of performance and what it means to act, as well as an accessible deconstruction of the documentary genre. Finally, it’s a searing critique on the consumerist “who remembers yesterday’s headline?” attitude, one that exposes the general public’s voyeuristic needs regarding tragedy.

This last element threatens to sabotage the film towards the end: the provocatively meta, Funny Games fourth-wall break might be one step too far for some. That being said, the tension throughout the final act, combined with Sean Price William’s knowingly playful cinematography is so addictive that you’ll be willing to forgive this minor wobble.

Much like the feared digital jargon in Zero Days, the thought of seeing a fiction-within-a-non-fiction-within-a-fiction may sound like it will overload logic glands, as well as provoke an aneurism. Fear not: Greene wants you to question what you’re watching and drops a few sanity-restoring clues along the way to help the viewer out. In lazier hands, this could have been another by-the-numbers biopic; thankfully, he has delivered a cinema vérité gem that shows the limits of fiction.

Both his film and Gibney’s latest are as troubling as they are fascinating and demand – nay, command – your attention.

Zero Days | Feb 18, 09:30, Friedrichstadt Palast; Feb 19, 12:15, Friedrichstadt Palast & 22:30, International.

Kate Plays Christine | Feb 19, 14:00, Akademie der Kunste; Feb 21, 22:00, Zoo Palast 2