Some difficulty awaits those who attempt to review a film whose publicity campaign consists almost solely of a plea for those who’ve seen the film to respect prospective viewers by not giving away the ending; a ‘no spoilers’ honour system. Indeed, rather than a fascinating catchphrase, the tagline for Catfish reads, “don’t let anyone tell you what it is”. So what can I tell you?
Catfish is a documentary being touted as a partner-piece to 2010’s widely acclaimed The Social Network. The latter sets out the history of Mark Zuckerberg and Co. during the birth of the Facebook phenomenon, and the other is a diary-like study of an internet friendship facilitated by that same interface. Yaniv “Nev” Schulman is a 24-year-old photographer and filmmaker living in New York City with fast friend Henry Joost and brother Ariel. Specialising in dance photography, Nev is contacted by 8-year-old Michigan girl and amateur painter Abbey via Facebook. She has seen one of his photographs in a magazine and asks permission to make a painting of it. Whilst this first contact mightn’t seem that film-worthy, Ariel and Henry begin making a documentary about Nev’s new friendship, and perhaps encouraged by the presence of the camera, Nev begins a correspondence with Abbey, her mother Angela and older sister Megan. Just as these friendships are blossoming, the film takes an unexpected turn and my synopsis needs must end.
Where The Social Network lacked detail on the application of Facebook, its users and functions, Catfish demonstrates the potential of social networking – the range of people it’s possible to connect with, and how the sharing of common interests brings together those geographically separated. It also manages to highlight some of the pitfalls of the medium that many users experience, including online addiction, unrealistic self-promotion and the perpetuation of relationships in a superficial or impersonal environment.
Whilst not strictly a ‘twist’ film, the unravelling story of the documentary-makers is certainly enhanced by keeping the direction of the snowball a secret. It’s also conceivable that without the hype of a hush-hush ending, the premise alone might not attract so many viewers despite being a poignant and worthy examination of online behaviour. Surely any film is enhanced by an unassuming attitude on the part of the audience. In this sense, the hype for Catfish may be unjustified. Yet any tactic attracting audiences to independent cinemas to see a documentary by debut filmmakers is certainly a worthy endeavour.
If Catfish lacks anything, it is a little bit of insight or summary. Many useful documentary techniques are passed over, where some narration, an interview with social networking representatives or personal conclusions might have nicely framed the piece. This lack of commentary leaves the ubiquity of Facebook intact, possibly a symptom of Nev’s chirpy attitude and unquestioning nature. People, not ‘the medium’, are definitely the message here. The story is not framed by clever editing or sound directorial vision, but simply motivated by the desire to capture a truly weird set of events to make a hit documentary. This is an unabashed ‘snapshot of life’ film.
The Catfish success story is an exceptional one. Joost and the Schulman brothers have made a debut feature that has attracted attention at international awards festivals and in varied publications. It is well timed, latching on to some of the buzz for The Social Network, and released when social networking has been with us for long enough for an informed consideration. Still, one cannot help but feel that Ariel, Nev and Henry just got lucky with Catfish. What started as a film about one friendship took a turn not dictated by its directors. Joost and Schulman followed the narrative wherever it took them. Many of their directorial discussions are included, important decisions regarding he privacy of others and the ethics of filming from real life are made on tape. In the absence of any information about what is to happen to them or the documentary next, the filmers, who are also the subjects, are often conflicted. These are young men palpably aware that their amazing experience will make an amazing film. But this is also their real world – and these are just three dudes up to their necks in their own bizarre adventure. As a result, Catfish is a kind of meta-documentary; a film about filmmakers making a film.