The new film "Catfish," directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, was listed in the Sundance catalog at this year's festival as a documentary. That's how it's being sold now, too, as a "real-life thriller," with much of the conversation after a screening being dedicated to figuring out what is real and what isn't. That's not true of every documentary, so why is it this one that people are having issues with regarding credibility?
It goes to the very nature of the film, I think, and it's not a problem that audiences are suddenly struck skeptical by the film; it's the natural result of a story that grapples with issues of reality and fantasy in the online age. I think it's a mistake to sell this movie as a film that hinges on a giant secret, because once you do that, audiences start trying to get ahead of the movie. They work overtime to piece things together, which means they aren't giving themselves over to the movie as a whole. And it also leads to reviewers playing coy in print instead of actually digging into the film and its merits.
The short version is this: Nev Schulman is a photographer working in New York City, and he published a photo in the New York Times of a dancer. He was contacted on Facebook by a family who loved his picture, and the youngest daughter decided to paint the picture. That simple gesture, a reaction to Nev's work, led to a whole world of new relationships for Nev, and his brother Ariel and their friend Henry Joost decided to shoot Nev's side of the relationship.
That decision alone makes me suspect that either Ariel and Henry realized right away that it was unlikely Nev's new friends were exactly who they claimed to be or that the first act of the film was built after the fact in order to make the footage into a film. It's too Hollywood perfect a set-up. When the painting sells, Nev is sent his part of the money, and he starts sending more photos to Abby, the little girl who does the paintings, and Angela, Abby's mother. We experience the movie via their social networking interaction, we travel from place to place via Google Street View or Google Maps, and text messages stand in for direct conversation. Nev starts to develop a relationship with Abby's older sister Megan, and for a while, she's his dream girl, a singer and dancer who seems to fall for him completely.
See where this is going?
One of the things that really confused me as I watched the film is the way Nev seems to accept things without questioning them. If I only knew someone via the Internet, the temptation to run a quick Google on them would be too overwhelming, and that simple act would negate so much of this film's running time that it's a big weird blind spot in the film. It's not until some of Megan's statements come up as untrue during a working trip for the guys to Colorado that they decide to take an unannounced trip to Michigan to drop in on the family and get some answers.
Even that is oddly structured. They fly in to a distant city, rent a car, and then drive a good chunk of the trip, as if intentionally drawing out the suspense. The entire film builds to what they find in Michigan, and that's obviously the hook. The ultimate answers aren't particularly thrilling or exciting or terrifying… they're just sort of sad, and that material seems to be the most honest in the movie. There's little doubt that the people they meet in Michigan are real people, and what unfolds is a strong lesson in the way many people see the Internet as a chance to reboot their own unhappiness, a place where they can live any life they want as long as they can get someone else to believe them. That belief is a key part of the equation, and without it, the fantasy doesn't matter.
Ultimately, unless the filmmakers decide to spell things out explicitly, there's no way to be sure what is or isn't true in "Catfish," but the point of the film remains valid no matter what. Language defines us in face to face encounters, but not the way it defines us online, and when we respond to someone's words, no matter how "honest" they are or are not, the response is something real and valid, and relationships in this digital age have evolved into something new, something strange, something worth understanding. And on that level, "Catfish" is a success, and worth seeing.
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