At its bursting public screening on Thursday night, Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman's social networking-gone-wrong documentary Catfish was described by Sundance programmer Kim Yutani as "a film you really cannot talk to another person in depth about unless both parties have seen the film."
I won't be the asshole and spoil Catfish's twists here, but the publicity strategy of protecting the film's "secret" is frustrating. It gives the impression that the major thing going for Catfish is the element of surprise, when in fact, the craft of this film is uncommonly impressive. You could remove the mystery quotient altogether and Catfish would remain the rare ultra-low-budget personal hybrid documentary with an extraordinary visual logic, and an even more extraordinary sense of compassion for its subjects. Even--especially--when its subjects take a turn for the superweird.
The story is set up with as few expository words as possible, via a prologue montage of emails, YouTube clips, Facebook comments and photos and other digital detritus. Yaniv "Nev" Schulman (brother of co-director Ariel) is a young, attractive, photographer living in New York. A photo with his credit appears in the New York Sun, and awhile later a painting of the photo arrives in the mail. Nev strikes up an online friendship with the painter, an 8 year-old girl named Abby living with her extended family in rural Michigan. Said extended family is uncommonly active on Facebook, and soon Nev has become wrapped up in their online drama, This leads to phone calls between Nev and Abby's young, hot mom Angela, and eventually a full-blown internet romance between Nev and Megan, Abby's 19 year-old knockout of a sister. Over the course of eight months, Nev becomes deeply involved with all three members of this family, without ever meeting them. And then one day, a Google search reveals a loose string in the fabric of the story. Nev pulls it, and the whole fantasy starts to unravel.
Unusual for a feature-length film using internet phenomena like YouTube, Facebook and even Google Maps as subject matter and raw material, Catfish actually feels like a natural product of media sharing culture. (In other words: it probably wouldn't attract the kinds of angry, resentful comments that went to the Sundance films offered for rental this week on YouTube.) Schulman and Joost submerge their film deep in mediating technologies to match the deep-end point of view of their subjects. At the same time, the film, like so much of what hits the zeitgeist via YouTube, is an accidental biproduct - Ariel and Joost shared an office with Nev, and say the project started as a casual fuck-off in between "real" films and commercial projects. If much of YouTube culture could be described as shaped bloopers, Catfish fits right in.
Watching Catfish and contemplating it afterwards, it's easy to fall into a wormhole of skepticism. If it's so simple to convincingly fake a life online, how do we know that any of this movie is really real? Is Joost's Q&A claim that he and Schulman "always film" Nev just "because we find him cinematic" a plausible explanation for how they managed to get so much of his relationships on camera before any of them had any inkling that the family in Michigan was not totally on the level? If we take Schulman's story at absolute face value, aren't we just repeating Nev's own good-hearted gullibility?
Last night an audience member made the comment, "I don't think this is a documentary," and Schulman (a Safdie Brothers affiliate who art directed Daddy Long Legs) joked testily in response ("So my brother is the best actor, and we're the best writers in Hollywood? Thanks!") -- as I expect one would if constantly asked to prove that a painful emotional crisis actually happened. Unless he's just acting the part of a filmmaker taking offense at the suggestion that he and his brother faked a life-changing experience in order to make a movie about the blurriness of contemporary reality?
It's probably counterproductive to worry about which possibility is closer to the truth, being that Catfish takes the very mutability of truth as its primary subject. In that sense, the film transcends the obvious, easy indictment of the "so close, yet so distant!" paradox of social networking to explore something much more ... uh, real. For all the modern technological mutations that made it possible, at the core of Catfish is the age-old pain and confusion that comes from suddenly becoming aware that someone you love isn't the person they presented themselves to be. It's just an all-digital cover version of an old analog tune.