(2010) directors Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman
Some people have referred to Catfish as “the other Facebook movie”, in reference to the successful, fictionalized narrative depiction of the rise of Facebook, the Oscar-nominated The Social Network (2010). However true or untrue the portrayals in The Social Network are, Catfish is not about the growth, development and people behind the code, but rather the other side, the face of Facebook, the social network itself, and addresses many aspects of the Internet and its embedded nature in modern life. Like The Social Network, however, there has also been some question to the verity of the story that it depicts. The difference is that Catfish is a documentary.
The story begins with 24 year old Nev, a New York photographer, who lives with his brother and another friend, who are the makers of the film. Nev gets introduced to a nine year old child prodigy from Northern Michigan, who paints strange versions of his photographs and sends them to him. They develop a Facebook relationship, which the film-makers decide to document. But as their long-distance acquaintance spills over into the girl’s extended family, the phenomenon seems more and more mind-boggling. And when it turns out that she has a hot older sister…well, Nev starts to fall in love.
But there is a mystery here, and not just one of “Why is the film called Catfish?”, but as Nev and his friends start to realize, something is indeed fishy about this artistic, talented, colorful family, and they decide to drop in on them in rural Michigan to find out what it’s all about.
When I first saw the trailers, the film was marketed as a shocker. “You won’t believe the last 1/2 hour!” “Don’t tell anyone the surprise ending!” And certainly there are twists here that are best experienced along the track of the film, however much you might start to suspect them anyways. And my initial reaction was that it looked a little over-hyped and that I’d wait til DVD, hoping that the surprise would still be intact for me. It wasn’t entirely.
But what did surprise me about the film is that there is something more here, a deeper sense of humanity and not just Internet weirdness. I will say no more about what the film unveils, as it gets to the heart of the story, but I will say that it was worth it, and not so much on the “shock value” surprise but rather that the story is of human-ness and not merely weirdness and deception.
The film came under criticism, according to some reports Morgan Spurlock of Supersize Me (2004), told the film-makers right after a showing, something like, “That was the best fake documentary I’ve ever seen.” I suppose that the doubt is centered around the story being “too good to be true” or that the film-makers suspected more than they let on and edited the film to achieve certain dramatic points rather than being objective, perhaps even being fictitious.
Personally, it seems pretty straight-forward to me. Every story is subjective to many degrees, perhaps to many nth degrees. And the film is clearly edited to tell the story. But frankly, it seems real to me. And I take it at that level of face value. But beyond that, I do think that this film taps into an aspect of the modern age, of social networking, of public faces that can be anything but pure fiction and tells a story that ultimately is less exploitative and more human and humane. I liked it.