Director : s Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2010
All of the controversy swirling around the authenticity--or lack thereof--of the events as depicted in Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s Catfish since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival has certainly drawn attention to the film, and even if it turns out that the whole thing was an elaborate cinematic hoax (which I, for the record, don’t think it is), it will have still made its point, and perhaps with even more force. A zeitgeisty documentary about how the Internet and social networking have created new forms of human communication that, in lacking face-to-face physical connection, invite all kinds of possibilities for elision, elaboration, and outright fabrication, Catfish is frequently uneven in its narrative strategies, but still effective in drawing you into the story and conveying a real sense of human need, desire, and compassion.
Like the documentaries of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky (particularly 2004’s Metallica: Some Kind of Monster), Catfish is in many ways an accidental documentary. When aspiring twentysomething filmmakers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman began documenting the day-to-day life of Ariel’s brother Yaniv (Nev for short), a Manhattan-based photographer, they had no idea the strange twists and turns the next eight months would unfold. It all begins when Nev is contacted via Facebook by an eight-year-old painting prodigy named Abby, who lives in Michigan and wants to paint a version of one of Nev’s photographs. Intrigued by her work, Nev eventually friends Abby and her mother Angela on Facebook, as well as Abby’s 19-year-old half-sister Megan, with whom he soon develops a hot-and-heavy long-distance relationship based entirely on phone calls, text messages, and Facebook posts. Technology is self-consciously foregrounded throughout the film, but especially during its opening half-hour, where we see as many screenshots of Facebook walls, iPhone text message streams, and Google map depictions of location hopping as it does its human subjects.
Nev’s understanding of this family is based entirely on what is made available in cyberspace, and for a long time he has no reason to doubt their veracity, despite the seemingly too-good-to-be-true nature of their involvement. Suffice it to say that the film takes a hard turn about halfway through when Nev and the filmmakers discover that Megan and her family may not have presented themselves in an entirely truthful light, and nagging questions eventually drive them to make the long trip to the tiny town of Ishpeming, Michigan, to discover the truth for themselves. It is at this point that the film becomes genuinely compelling, not so much because it answers the questions that Nev and the others want to ask (which it does), but because it brings up a whole host of additional, deeper, and more probing questions that don’t have simple answers. In fact, they constitute something of a black hole, the bottom of which can be reached only by coming to grips with the fundamentally difficult nature of humanity and our capacity for deceiving not just others, but especially ourselves.
If all of that sounds extremely vague and ambiguous, it is because I am trying desperately not to give too much of the story away, although it is difficult to address its complexities without doing so. I will state, as have others, that the film’s clever trailer is deeply misleading in the way it suggests Catfish is some kind of horror-thriller in which Nev and company discover something terrible lurking in the darkness of northern Michigan. There are discoveries to be made, but what makes the film worthwhile is the manner in which the filmmakers turn what could have been a cheap “gotcha” into a genuine attempt to understand another human being’s desperate and deceptive attempt to reach out and connect with others. The feeling with which Catfish leaves you is one of profound sadness, which ultimately eclipses its status as some kind of grand statement about the nature of social networking and technologically dependent interactions. That is just the start.
Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick
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