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February 3, 2011 / Siobhan Argent

Catfish


There’s a new wave of ‘documentary-style’ films coming out at the moment. In these films, you often can’t quite tell exactly how much is fiction and how much is reality. The king of all these is, of course, I’m Still Here, with Joaquim Phoenix’s attempts to transition from actor to rap star being exposed as an all-out sham after the release of the film. Luke Buckmaster goes into more detail about why the idea of documentary as nothing but the truth is undergoing a shakedown; his article is here. Like the Phoenix film, Catfish is one of those documentaries where it could just as easily be a pisstake as a true story.

And if it’s a true account, then Nev Schulman is as naive as a ten-year-old. As a filmmaker and photographer, one of his photos is featured in a newspaper that a young child named Abby admires. Abby sends him a (rather good) painting of his photo, and from there strikes up a friendship with Nev. Facebook and the digital universe allows the connections between Nev, Abby and her family to quickly deepen; Nev eventually talks to Abby’s mother Angela on the phone, and then to Megan, Angela’s adult, attractive daughter.

It’s clear whenever Meg is mentioned that Nev has developed a crush. While the viewer bounces between Google Maps images of Nev’s office and Megan’s farm, you get the disconcerting feeling that this digitalised world could all so easily be manipulated from the relative safety of a computer. Nev’s brother and friend are more interested in staying behind the camera and capturing each and every moment of this digital encounter, with the understanding that it’s ‘for a film’. Which is where suspicions about the veracity of the story begin to mount.

It’s convenient how these three guys somehow knew to keep rolling the tape on something that just happened to turn into a compelling and strange story. It’s also quite odd that Nev is just so darned innocent about what generally happens in internet love-affairs. So when the boys finish a job near Michigan, where Megan lives, they decide to drop in and confirm once and for all their own suspicions about Nev’s internet girlfriend. The surprise encounter between the two makes for some pretty nerve-racking viewing.

It’s critical not to give away the story though; it’s fascinatingly uncomfortable to watch it unravel, which seems to make the filmmakers’ point. It’s easier to sit and watch rather than to actively pursue the truth yourself. It’s also interesting to assess just how thoughtfully these three filmmakers approach a difficult and sensitive subject. More than once Nev is rattled by the role he’s been asked to play; having been so thoroughly involved in an online relationship with Megan, he is now asked to take a step back, extract the material required to make an interesting film, and move on. And the result of all that is written on his face when, a few months later, he receives the painting that will define is relationship with Abby’s family.

There’s too little of the expected emotion in this film for it to be truly believable. If I were Nev, I doubt I would have been restrained as he is on film. True or not, it is an excellent cautionary tale for the average internet-user about the freedom online chat can give you. In some extraordinary way, it’s also a story about liberation, desperation and sadness. But who knows if it’s the real deal?

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