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Catfish

dir: Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost
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The lifeblood, the cornerstone, the fundamental currency of documentary filmmaking is credibility. The subjects, as in, the people being interviewed don’t have to necessarily be credible, since there are a lot of quality documentaries about dishonest or deeply delusional, misguided people (the Aileen Wuornos: Selling of a Serial Killer doco, Fog of War, Tyson, Mr Death: the Rise and Fall of Fred Leuchter Jr), so I have zero problems with unreliable interviewees.

The people who we have to trust as being credible are the ones making the documentary. Michael Moore squandered a lot of the goodwill his earlier documentaries engendered in the public once revelations as to the level of ‘creativity’ involved in putting together his various screeds, manipulating facts and the depiction of events to buttress his arguments, came out. Also, he's a bit of a hypocrite, but his documentaries have forcibly improved in the interim.

The people involved in this documentary don’t strike me as being very credible, honest or forthright in their depiction of events. It doesn’t completely torpedo the doco, because, after all, it’s about dishonesty. I just would prefer it if the makers could be a tad more honest than the fabulist at the core of this story.

The introductory graphics and opening titles are all meant to reinforce and remind us of something we already know: that a lot of our lives, at least our work and social lives, seem to be transpiring online in this new digital golden age. Not only has Facebook transformed the way people keep in touch and bore each other with the minutiae of their lives, and that Google Earth and GPS technology has transformed how readily we can visualise the places we want to get to or the people we want to stalk, but, really, they’re not saying much more than: Wow, these tubes of the internets have changed everything, haven’t they?

It also helps stylise and provide filler for a documentary made by people with what I’m guessing was a very small budget. Most of it looks cheap even by the standards of documentary filmmaking, looking, for the most part, more like home movies. I’ve nary a problem with that, it’s just that in the same way that everyone of a certain age has footage of themselves, or, more usually, their uncles acting like total dicks on some video from a wedding reception or party, it’s not the same thing as a movie.

My problem is that even going into it not knowing what was going to happen, two things become immediately apparent: the sting in the tail of the doco is going to be about someone not being who they claim to be online, and that the people making the doco know that right from the start. The pretence that the people involved, being photographer Nev Schulman, his brother Ariel, Henry Joost and the other people they work with in a film production company are finding things out as we are, as in, as they’re filming them, is absolute bullshit.

It’s patently obvious from the start. Nev has a smirk on his face like a schoolkid perpetually changing his story about what happened to his homework, and expecting to be caught. The idea that they never discussed what was going on away from the camera, or that they never twigged until the every ‘end’ is utterly spurious.

How do I know for a fact that the makers of Catfish are constructing the narrative in a disingenuous way, in other words, lying about how honest they’re being? I’m not so arrogant as to believe I know anything with absolute certainty, so I’m not going to say I’m 100 per cent certain of anything, including how anthropogenic global warming, how gravity works, evolutionary theory or even a mother’s love.

I am, however, 99.9 per cent certain. I may not be that character Tim Roth plays on Lie to Me who can figure fifteen ways from Sunday as to how and what anyone’s lying about at any given moment, but I can tell when a bunch of non-professional ‘actors’ are hamming it up in front of a camera.

It’s a skill. It’s a blessing and a curse, but it’s not like it’s that goddamn hard. I can also see very easily why they had to lie at every phase of the production on camera and in marketing it, because to admit foreknowledge means they’ve got no story at all, and no reason for any of us to watch it.

Instead, they’ve constructed their tatty narrative, and they’re sticking to it, god love ‘em.

The irony, of course, is that the subject of the documentary is a person lying about who they are.

This is the premise as they present it: In 2008, someone contacts Nev by sending him a painting of one of his photographs that was printed in a newspaper. It is only the merest coincidence that his brother Ariel is filming him at this point, as Nev explains to camera that the painting of his photo was done, apparently, by an eight-year-old girl called Abby, who lives in upstate Michigan.

Against all common sense, believability or knowledge of the FBI’s procedures in tracking down online sexual predators, Nev somehow becomes ‘friends’ online and on the phone with Abby. Surely Abby exists. She has a Facebook page, after all.

More paintings arrive in the mail, more gifts and t-shirts. Nev speaks with Abby’s mother on the phone, just in case we think he’s as suss as he seems. He also, with the mother’s prompting and blessing, connects with other members of the family, including, and especially Abby’s elder sister Megan. All of this occurs on camera, just by purest, most serendipitous accident. Lucky for us, aye?

Megan. According to the photos attached to her Facebook profile, she’s attractive and such. And very talented as a photographer, singer, neurosurgeon and astronaut. Nev and Megan strike up a relationship, and keep in virtual constant contact through texting and chatting.

Could it be love, do you think? A lot of people in this day an age have met online, and allowed their love to spill out into the real world. Other people have left their families and travelled across the world for a person they only ‘know’ in the online realm
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A lot of people still think the Earth is 4000 years old. A lot of people still fall for the Nigerian Bank scam, even today. A lot of men, usually in their twilight years or just not very bright to begin with, have signed over their life savings to pictures of busty dyed blonde Russian babushkas, with no more evidence that the Russian bride is who she says she is, or looks as she says, than if it was actually Vladimir Putin himself coyly using some pornstar’s picture in his profile for money and kicks.

Strange little details only now begin to accumulate (we are meant to believe), which make it seem like Megan and Abby are too good to be true. The sequence where Nev asks Megan online to record herself doing a cover of a song called Tennessee Stud is so incredible (as in, non-credible) that it makes weddings and Oscar speeches look spontaneous and genuine. The way these chumps act like it’s really happening at the time they’re saying it is occurring is so contrived it gives contrivance a bad name, and makes Disneyland look like a church. It’s patently fraudulent, in a doco abounding with patent fraudulence on all sides.

You can see, or you should be able to see where this is going by now, as our heroes decide to embark on an odyssey to Michigan in order to visit Abby and Megan in person, to see for themselves where it is that they live, and how they live, and to say hi.

Yeah. Right. However, the final stretch of the flick, which answers all the outstanding questions of what was really going on (originally, because not for a second do I believe that this was happening for the first time in front of the camera), is simultaneously cringe-worthy and fascinating. It’s not so much the revelation that matters, with Nev, the poorest actor I’ve ever seen outside of crime re-enactments on Crime Stoppers, pretends to be receiving a confession, pretends to be aggrieved, and yet smiles like the shallow, tramp-stamp sporting fuck that he is.

It’s the life of the person responsible for the initial deception, the lengths she’s gone to, the actual circumstances of her daily life, the distance between the fantasy and the reality of what she wanted to portray, her possible reasons for doing what she did (versus her actual reasons for doing what she did, which pretty obviously was money), and the gulf between how we see ourselves and how we’d like to be seen by others.

That stuff, even taking on board all the bullshit the documentary makers contrive for their own benefit, certainly not ours, is pretty interesting. Possibly not interesting enough to justify the existence of this documentary (in my eyes), and yet it did get a lot of buzz in 2010, and fooled a lot of people who really should have known better.

I don’t begrudge them doing what they did. It probably wouldn’t have gotten as much buzz and play in the media had they been more honest about it all, and set it up differently from the path they chose. I don’t begrudge them, but I don’t respect them for it either.

It’s less a cautionary tale of love and life in the Facebook Age than it is an example of how someone got fooled briefly, but looked at it as an opportunity to make something mildly profitable out of it. Such opportunism should be applauded. It’s the American Way, after all.

6 times the second the doco becomes the story of a 24-year-old man talking online with an 8-year-old the alarm bells started ringing too loud to ignore out of 10

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“If this is your documentary, you're doing a bad job.” – I agree - Catfish

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