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In late 2007, filmmakers Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost sensed a story unfolding as they began to film the life of Ariel's brother, Nev. They had no idea that their project would lead to the most exhilarating and unsettling months of their lives. A reality thriller that is a shocking product of our times, Catfish is a riveting story of love, deception and grace within a labyrinth of online intrigue.
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In truth, the less you know about "Catfish"--the better. And perhaps that is the reason behind the mysterious trailer that may have been a tad misleading. The story is extremely contemporary. Anyone who has experienced online networking and dating know the inherent perils in believing everything you read. It's simply not prudent. "Catfish" documents a relationship between a successful New York photographer and 8 year old Abby, an artist in Michigan. Abby sends him a painting of one of his published photos and the two strike up an electronic friendship. His brother and friend start to document this blossoming camaraderie and this forms the initial basis for "Catfish." Soon, he becomes acquainted with Abby's entire family and even starts a long distance courtship with her older sister Megan. But as things become more intimate, everything might not be entirely copasetic. The film culminates with the boys traveling to Michigan to meet the family that he has been corresponding with for over eight months.
Let me just say this--nothing that they discover is particularly surprising. Modern audiences are certainly astute enough to sort out the central mysteries. What is surprising, however, is the intricacies involved in these mysteries. The film begins as a lark--funny and romantic. It evolves into a darker picture altogether until the end is infused with a sadness and melancholy which was quite unexpected. I, of course, can only speak for myself. I don't think "Catfish" is for everyone and I understand the frustration of viewers who felt the advertising was a bit of a bait and switch. But, in truth, I absolutely loved this movie. Seriously.
There is also an ongoing debate about the veracity of the film--how much was staged and how much unfolded naturally. I will admit that the casual filming style and equipment wouldn't always have lent itself to the full picture and all access pass that the film provides. But there is a real underlying integrity to what is being revealed. "Catfish" struck me as an honest examination about the truths that we need to tell ourselves to get by. I was thoroughly entertained throughout. "Catfish" made me laugh, made me uncomfortable, and made me sad. And just when I made my peace with the characters of "Catfish," the end credit epilogue slapped me back to reality one more time. I am certainly surprised by the depth of passion I have in defending this film from its nay-sayers, but it is a film that will linger in my mind for quite some time. KGHarris, 1/11.
Whilst working on a project in Colorado, the trio start to find holes in the story presented to them. Megan, who sings and plays guitar and piano, sends Nev some songs she's recorded, but he finds that they are recordings of songs from YouTube. Googling reveals no mention of Abby's artistic skills in local media. Nev becomes concerned over being scammed, and they decide to detour to Michigan on the way home to learn the truth.
Catfish is an interesting film that was released last year after proving a storm at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. It then triggered a significant wave of controversy, though we'll come to that in a moment. It's easy to see why the film has been praised: it's a zeitgeist-capturing movie about people who forge relationships online where the details presented by the parties involved may be exaggerated or indeed fabricated altogether. The final act, exposing what's really going on, subverts audience expectations about the motivations of those involved. As a piece of film-making, Catfish is entertaining, intriguing and builds tension towards the moment of revelation (though it has to be said that this is a quiet, non-flashy film; the trailer suggesting it's a 'thriller' is totally inaccurate).
The film also asks an important question of the audience, one that may or may not have been intended by the film-makers. The film is about people passing themselves and a situation off as something that is rather different to what is presented. So, it is perfectly logical for the viewer to ask, "Okay, but what about you guys? Is this really what happened? Are you manipulating us?" If the film-makers had done this deliberately and perhaps avoided answering the question in promotion, it would be a fascinating and metatextual statement on presentation, perception and motivation in a world where it's all too easy to manipulate these things online for an intended purpose or effect. Unfortunately, the film-makers have spent a fair amount of time saying that everything in the film is 100% the truth and nothing has been changed or manipulated.
This claim is immediately challenged by a scene in which Nev and his compatriots arrive at the address supplied by Megan, intending to surprise her, only to find the house abandoned and uninhabited. Nev opens the postbox (rather dubiously; interfering with the mail in the USA is a federal offence) and finds it stuffed full of the letters and packages he's sent to Megan during the course of their 'relationship'. However, this is clearly a fabricated scene: the post has 'return to sender' already stamped on it, indicating that the post was delivered, not picked up and sent back to Nev in New York. He then appears to have taken the post back to the address and set the scene up to demonstrate to the viewer the deception of Megan providing a false address.
This in turn leads to the viewer questioning the truthfulness of the entire enterprise. Many tens of thousands of words have been dedicated to questioning every aspect of the film by multiple articles, blogs and even news items on US television, so I'll avoid into delving too far into that, except to note that there seems to have been some very clever manipulation of scenes and chronology going on to present the narrative as it unfolds to us.
The film, taken at face-value, is intriguing and raises interesting questions about Internet-based relationships. However, the fact that aspects of it are clearly manipulated and possibly exploitative (one of the participants has since passed away, something that has indeed been verified, but which makes the situation even murkier) leaves a bad taste in the mouth. But at the same time, the fact that after watching the film the viewer can then go online and read up on all the controversy and draw their own conclusions itself adds another level to the experience: layers of deceit, spin, presentation and impersonation. Talking about the film and seeing how different people interpret it is arguably more interesting than the movie itself.
Catfish (score not really applicable) is a bizarre and thought-provoking film about modern media, manipulation and social networking. Whether you believe all of it, none of it or something between, it definitely raises some very interesting questions. The film is available now on DVD (UK, USA) and Blu-Ray (UK, USA).
At the start, we meet a young successful New York City photographer Nev Schulman who works with his brother Ariel and their buddy Henry. When Nev gets a painting of one of his photos sent to him by an eight year old in Michigan named Abby; Nev is flattered and starts an online friendship with Abby under her mother Angela's supervision. Ariel and Henry document the budding friendship between Abby and Nev by filming it; and it isn't long before Nev befriends Abby's entire family and starts "internet dating" and flirting using text messaging, phone conversations and online chat sessions with Abby's older half-sister Megan. Nev befriends other people on the Internet who also know Abby's family.
But things become much more complicated. While on a trip to Colorado, Nev gets some music from Megan--but they turn out to be songs posted on a website by another artist! They also can't find any evidence on the Internet that Abby is an artist. Nev feels confused, scammed or taken advantage of but to some degree the young man really doesn't know what to think. Nev, Ariel and Henry decide to get to the bottom of things: They fly to Chicago, rent a car and drive to Megan's farm and the town where Abby and her family live to find out once and for all what's going on.
What Nev, Ariel and Henry discover is shown in the rest of the film. I agree with anyone that the trailer for Catfish is misleading; it's not a thriller despite their best efforts to use music that sounds "eerie" and their encouraging each other to check out Abby's family when each of them gets almost too nervous and scared to discover what might really be happening. Nevertheless, what they discover is quite dramatic.
There has been considerable controversy over just how much of the story is true. One thing is clear: the scene in which they discover Nev's mail to Megan at a farm where Megan told them she lives was almost certainly fabricated. The camera shows that postcards from Nev to Megan were already stamped "return to sender" so they couldn't have been sitting in that mailbox; that mail must have been returned to the sender (Nev in New York)--and then brought back to the Michigan address by Nev, Ariel and Henry so the scene would look realistic. Whoops! Looks like there's at least one hole in the story; that leaves me wondering how much of the rest is true.
The DVD comes with an interview with filmmakers Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman as well as Nev Schulman.
Catfish is interesting not necessarily for honesty but more so for highlighting how people can use social media websites to portray themselves or others as they wish--and what can happen in "real life" as a result. I recommend this film for fans of documentaries and people who are interested in the effect of social media on human relationships.