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Catfish (2010) ***1/2

September 23, 2010

Produced by: Andrew Jarecki, Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman, and Marc Smerling

Directed by: Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman

Rated PG-13 for some sexual references

94 mins.

U.S. Release Date: September 17, 2010 (limited)

What is a documentary?  Is it a boring film that you used to watch in school?  Is it a “real-life-like” film with a pointed political or religious message?  Is it simply a film that is shot in a home video style?  The new festival-circuit buzz film Catfish definitely tests the boundaries of the documentary genre as it leads audiences to believe one thing, but it (as always) may not be the case.  The marketing campaign behind the film is guided by one phrase: “Don’t let anyone tell you what it is.”.  This counterintuitive anti-word-of-mouth idea has spurred further interest in moviegoers far beyond the original scope of the filmmakers, and Catfish now has real potential to be this year’s “buzziest” film.  Is Sundance’s latest golden boy worth all the fuss, or can you throw this one off your friends list?

Catfish begins abruptly with the film’s main focal point, Nev Schulman, protesting the camera while it hovers in front of him.  Nev is a twenty-something tech-savvy photographer from New York City who sells his work to local publications.  Ariel Schulman, Nev’s brother, and Henry Joost, Ariel’s business partner, share an office suite with Nev and have recently become interested in a new relationship he has developed.  The young photographer sells one of his recent photos to a national publication and the art was noticed by a talented eight-year old in Michigan named Abby.  Upon seeing Nev’s photo of a couple dancing ballet in a park, she did an oil painting of his photo and mailed it to him.  As Nev took more photos, he sends copies to Abby and, over time, he receives paintings back in the mail.  As months past, Ariel and Henry become interested enough to begin documenting the flourishing relationship.

Granted, Abby and Nev’s relationship is mostly handled through Facebook and conversations with Abby’s mother Angela, but the two become very close… in a “never met each other” sort of way.  One major point of interest for Nev is Abby’s much older half-sister Megan.  Megan is a singer-songwriter from Michigan who owns her own farm.  Nev and Megan chat back and forth online, text, and enjoy long lone conversations together.  Things start to get serious as the two graduate to pet-name status in their relationship, the most popular being “babe”, all while never actually having met in person.

As in any online relationship, things are not always as they seem.  However, it doesn’t take a face-to-face meeting for Nev, Ariel, and Henry to figure out things are a little “off” with Megan.  When the 3 New Yorkers travel to Colorado on business, spontaneity leads them driving toward Michigan in pursuit of an unannounced first meeting with Megan, Angela, and Abby.

Regardless of genre, and especially for a documentary, Catfish is a film that really engages the audience.  As a viewer, the filmmakers put you in the room with Nev, Ariel, and Henry, so when the story really takes off, you feel a vested interest.  There are hilarious moments, as well as times of genuine tension, but you are always wrapped up in the story.  The use of hidden cameras, cell phones, webcams, and consumer-grade camcorders really adds to the authentic feel and engagement that Catfish exudes.

To explore the question, “What is a documentary?”, there have reports that is film might not be 100% honest in its presentation.  Critics of Catfish insist that a group of tech-savvy kids from New York have the acumen to use the internet to research who they’re talking to before they delve into a year-long relationship with them.  Not to say that the events that transpired in this film were staged, just that the filmmakers knew some of what they were getting into prior to capturing the first frame of video.  I say, “what documentary IS completely honest in its presentation?”.  Why would a filmmaker begin planning and shooting a documentary, spend their own money, and shooting hundreds of hours of film, if they weren’t sure that they had a somewhat compelling story to tell?

In a recent documentary called Prodigal Sons, the premise of the film is made clear to the audience at the offset, and the scope and direction changes as it progresses (if you’ve seen it, you know exactly what I mean).  That is how I interpret Catfish.  Three guys begin an odd online relationship and thought, “This is getting weird”, so they began documenting it.  After staging the film, the filmmakers cannot possible know what will happen next, even if they think they know.  That is the beauty of real documentary filmmaking.

If you like documentaries, and you love a good time at the movies filled with a broad range of emotional turns, then you might really enjoy Catfish.  If you sit and try to pick apart every little thing that could seem “fishy” about the film, you may not.  However, if you nitpick all the films you see, you probably don’t enjoy any of them anyway.  Let the story of Catfish take you on a fun 90-minute journey as it begs you to ask yourself about your interactions on the internet and how you conduct yourself online.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 6, 2011 12:39 am

    The film begs lots of questions about how, and when, it became clear any of this was worth documenting, but it certainly was. I still don’t know whether this was real or not, but despite that all, I was still interested while watching this. Good review, check out mine when you can!


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