Fishing for the Truth: Social Networking Doc Catfish Reviewed

The latest in a glut of films which blur the boundaries between documentary and fiction, _Catfish_ chronicles a social networking encounter too strange to be believed. Daniel Nixon thinks the film, out on DVD this week, perfectly captures the illusory nature of online relationships and all of their pitfalls, even if it stands on morally shaky ground.

The modern approach when consuming contemporary art, particularly film, is perhaps to add a healthy dollop of cynicism or, at least, skepticism. Otherwise there is the danger we may be manipulated by what is put before us, may miss a sleight of hand, may, worst of all, not ‘get it’. This year has seen a series of documentary films that seek to exploit this cynicism, playing with the audience’s credulity whilst also exploring notions of authorial authority.

We have seen the idiot savant Thierry Guetta (AKA Mr. Brainwash) become the toast of the urban art world in Bansky’s wry debut feature Exit Through the Gift Shop. Joaquin Phoenix had an apparent mental breakdown in I’m Still Here, directed to self-destruction by his brother-in-law Casey Affleck. And now the stranger-than-fiction Catfish propounds to be a documentary about the complications implicit in internet relationships. The approach of the modern documentary seems to dare the viewer into protesting that what is being shown can surely not be true. With Exit Through the Gift Shop and I’m Still Here, such protests are surely correct, but with Catfish it appears that the story’s end is in the authorial discourse’s beginning.

The staging of events and ‘documenting’ them as real is as old as film itself, of course. The Lumière brothers’ first film, Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory, apparently little more than a docu-vignette, was staged and remade three times before the French pioneers had a shot they were happy with. Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, considered by many to be the first ever feature length documentary, was also largely faked by Flaherty to create a more ‘authentic’ ethnographic portrait of Inuit life for Western audiences. For example, the director encouraged Allakariallak, the Inuk playing Nanook, to use indigenous hunting methods, even though he had learnt that a rifle was a more efficacious method of killing walruses and seals while still at his father’s knee. As documentary developed, fiction filmmakers seized upon its techniques for their own ends.

This cross-pollination between the documentary and the fiction film manifests itself most obviously nowadays in a film’s aesthetic. Technology is now at a point where the documentary, or documentary style film is the easiest and cheapest way for an independent filmmaker to pick up his camera and actually get something made. Indeed, the shaky, hand-held shooting techniques generally associated with low budget, documentary style pictures even creep into glossy Hollywood productions – the work of Paul Greengrass on the Bourne franchise being a notable example.

Where does this leave the viewer, then, if ‘documentary’ as a term no longer has its own specific stylistic touchstones, is no longer able to easily say ‘this is the truth; what I’m presenting to you is fact’; if directors are self-consciously distorting and manipulating the facts? Cynical? Guarded? Confused? And what happens when filmmakers come across an unbelievable yet authentic story by chance? This is the dilemma of Catfish. The plot seems so fantastical, and the twist so outlandish, it is difficult to suspend disbelief and accept this strange Internet romance actually happened.

But happen it did, and in having the presence of mind to pick up their cameras, the filmmakers, Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, may have stumbled across a story to define a generation. More presciently than The Social Network, Catfish is able to explore the strange paradox of Facebook, contemporary society’s social arbiter: the contrary emotions of unity and dislocation, community and isolation, interaction and voyeurism.

The documentary follows Ariel’s brother Nev (pronounced Neev), a New York photographer with whom the filmmakers share an office space. The story begins with Nev receiving a painting of one of his photos from an eight-year-old girl called Abby, an apparent artistic prodigy. Nev becomes Facebook friends with Abby. And then with her surprisingly youthful looking mum. And then with her alluring older sister. Increasingly his social network with the family comes to resemble a tangled web. The film’s outstanding achievement is its ability to unravel this complex net of cyber relationships, thus, essentially, pinning down the vast technological will-o’-the-wisp that is Facebook itself.

However real our Internet relationships may seem, they are not tangible entities; they are relationships filtered through a labyrinthine computer programme: approach them and they will recede into the ether of the newsfeed. Catfish exploits this, and utilizes the visual touchstones Facebook users are so familiar with, as well as some innovative shots from other web applications such as Google maps, to create a unique visual style. In other words, it converts the everyday Internet experience into a format that works on the big screen.

Some critics have questioned the morality of arranging such a story for the screen, and some of these protests do stand. For example, if we go back to questions of authorial reliability, it is possible (or maybe probable) the directors realized earlier than the film lets on that the seriously compelling narrative they had been gifted was morally ambiguous to say the least. However, to fully debate these arguments, one would have to reveal key elements of the plot, which is not something the film deserves, not until it has had a decent run on DVD release.

These objections aside, the understanding the filmmakers have of the visual experience of surfing the web that makes this film so unique. It is the directors’ understanding of the modern mode of communication and their ability to find a unique way of representing this on film, rather than the actual interactions between Nev and Abby’s family, that has allowed them to take the story they happened upon to its greatest heights. It is Facebook itself that lends the film its most beguiling sense of unreality: we come to understand that our own Facebook relationships are, to a certain extent, every bit as illusory as the ones between Nev and Abby’s family. Perhaps this is why some have decided to question the film’s authenticity: it is easier to question a documentary’s authenticity and write it off as fiction, as a hoax, than look at the implications it may have for your own life.

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