Catfish: Virtual Vérité

16 Jan

Catfish, a documentary in which filmmakers Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost film the developing relationship of Ariel’s brother, Nev, with a family he met online through Facebook, unleashed massive debate about its authenticity. To put that one to bed, here’s David Calhoun, writing in Time Out “Some have accused Joost and the Schulman brothers of spinning a yarn. Personally, I think that reduces the very real debates the film raises to do with film-making ethics, the honesty of storytelling, the condescension with which the urbane view the provincial and the growing divide between the technologically sophisticated and technologically foolish.

If you begin with the premise that all films, docs and dramas, are constructs of one sort or another and it’s the how and why that’s important, you’ll have fun pulling this apart. Just don’t expect the filmmakers to join you at that level.’

I do, however, disagree with his comment that the filmmakers are ‘brandishing the falsest of sympathetic smiles’. I found the film funny, moving and deeply humane. And I’m not sure that the film deals with ‘the condescension with which the urban view the provincial’ so much as their lack of awareness. Nev in particular – admittedly I’m less sure about his brother and Joost – becomes increasingly uncomfortable and several times claims he’d prefer to stop filming.

This brings us neatly on to boundaries and Catfish’s fascinating investigation of them. In a series of Russian doll layering of themes and tropes, the line between fact and fiction – the ‘am I, aren’t I?’ teasing of the plot neatly reflects that of the authenticity of the film itself – and the line between our public and private selves is unpicked. Similarly, the extent to which we construct ourselves and our reality – both publicly and privately – through storytelling, offers a further commentary on the film-making process. Other boundaries too are highlighted: that between urban and rural, when Nev questions what future his relationship with Megan, the eldest daughter who lives in rural Michigan, could have. Or, most painfully, what happens when someone with an ‘access all areas’ cultural pass meets someone whose nose is still pressed against the glass.

Above all, the film raises some interesting questions about technology’s ability to increase the cultural parameters of our lives. Is the access it provides genuine? And to what extent can it be considered a double-edged sword? Does the virtual (close analysis of that word might prove instructive) access it offers only increase awareness of exclusion? What I love is the way these and other big questions are smuggled in on the back of a slight plot and a focus on the apparently inconsequential and everyday.

One particularly touching, funny (in a squirming kind of a way) scene has Nev reading out a text exchange with Megan. As these become raunchier, albeit in a pretty innocent, cheesy way, Nev retreats under the bed-clothes to cover his embarrassment. This scene, and the film as a whole, act to remind us that we don’t yet know the directions this new technology will take us, or the etiquette it might need.  And, while it doesn’t claim to have the answers, it deserves a high mark for showing its creative working out of the problems.


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