By now it is clear that the one word that’s defined the cultural consciousness of the western world for the last year has been ‘facebook’ — every day, in every corner, on every web page, in our online lives and off, the social networking site has reached something of a zeitgeist, stealing some ground from that other social media darling twitter.
In no small part, this resurgence of facebook as a cultural talking point has been because of the excellence and the success of The Social Network.
But let’s talk about that other facebook film. Let’s talk not about the founding and the mythology behind it, but of a story that very well may not exist without it and several other internet communication technologies, that are fast becoming the language of our everyday lives. For while it is about a many things that have been around long before facebook and the internet and computers, Catfish, a documentary, is all about technology and the shape it gives our lives.
Even to the extent of fabrication.
In 2007, New York-based photographer Yaniv ‘Nev’ Schulman received a painting from a young girl in far-off Michigan; a reproduction of a picture he had taken that appeared in the newspaper. Their correspondence continued, and grew to include the girl — Abby’s — family and friends, who began, as modern life goes, to connect with Nev on facebook.
Sharing an office with Nev, meanwhile, were his filmmaker brother Ariel ‘Rel’ Schulman & Henry Joost. Joost and the elder Schulman brother decided to chronicle the correspondence & friendship between Nev and Abby, and the burgeoning relationship between him and Abby’s half-sister Megan.
Things, of course, were not as they seemed.
To say more about the plot of Catfish would be giving a great deal away, and yet no discussion of this film can be had without alluding in some form to that central mystery and twist — and if the movie is even a documentary at all, or a carefully constructed fiction. I will try my best not to spoil anything, but this is going to be tricky. If you want to stop reading here and need the short version: Catfish is definitely worth a watch.
From this point on, there are three ways to regard Catfish: as a documentary; as a piece of fiction pretending to be a documentary; and as a technical piece of filmmaking.
To tackle the question that’s hanging in the air head on, I think that it is indeed a documentary, inasmuch as the people and story it depicts are real and not some kind of pre-scripted fiction. I suppose the controversy has arisen by just how much like fiction the film plays out. Events and dramatic twists happen in ways that we’re quite used to seeing in fiction movies, and so when presented with a documentary — an object that we expect to be rougher round the edges — it is natural for any seasoned movie goer to do a double take.
Part of this blurring is a symptom of the world it depicts, I believe. We are, ten years into the twenty-first century, more attuned to the tropes of fiction as a schematic for the progression of ordinary life than we ever have been. More than a decade of relentless ‘reality television’ for instance has made all of us, in a way, into actors, ready to summarise and comment on the events in our lives in a way not unlike a character in a book or film. Is it any wonder then, that two filmmakers (and a photographer), whose entire job is to document life and tell stories, fall naturally into a style of delivery and an interpretation of events around them in a way that is fiction-esque?
To entertain the other option: if there is any chance that this is fiction as we know it every week at the cinema, then it is a well-constructed and paced fiction that benefits greatly from its unusual presentation.
And it is its technical presentation that is noteworthy nonetheless. Utilizing an array of digital cameras from high-end professional camcorders to little handheld ones and even humble digital compact cameras, Catfish‘s cinematography brings a good deal of immersion to the world it presents. The other half of the equation is that half of this movie takes place on computer screens.
There is a prevailing notion among filmmakers that showing people typing is a cinematic black hole, and so if computers are ever depicted in movies then a hundred thousand animations are going on, or things people type are read aloud by disembodied computer voices. What Catfish boldly chooses to do, is show us exactly the kind of computer experience that we have every day, of checking mail, doing google searches, scrolling around pages of images and maps — and then weaves it seamlessly and expertly into the narrative. Instead of characters telling us they’re going on a trip, we get to see the process of their tickets being booked online, and the 3D satellite map going there.
It shouldn’t work, but it does, and that is precisely because we all — or most of the audience for this film, anyway — understand the shorthand of surfing the internet, and using many of those same services. The filmmakers take the very mundane tasks of our lives and turn it into the syntax of a narrative, and that is no small feat.
Questions about art imitating life and life ordering itself to resemble art aside, Catfish is a gripping document. There are many stories at work here; The first, of Nev and his relationship with Abby and her family & friends; the second, of the people behind that story, the difference between them as experienced through the lens of the information cloud of facebook & chat and whatnot, who they are in the real world, and how both sides (the filmmakers too) approach and engage with that cloud.
These are all old stories, far older in their essence and emotion than any of the technologies that facilitate them in the modern world, and that is what makes Catfish exciting, touching, and ultimately haunting.