54th BFI London Film Festival: Catfish

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Directors by Henry Joost, Ariel Shulman

2010, USA

Mild spoilers follow.

Catfish has had a lot of hype over the past few months, with a tantalizing trailer that managed to give nothing away but hinted at a dark twist and a finale that would possibly dip its toes into full-on horror. Now it’s been released at festivals people seem to either love it or hate, but the one thing that’s constantly debated is whether or not it is a genuine article. Is it a pure documentary? A modified version of the truth? Or a completely contrived con?

Well let me start by assuring you all that this is a 100% real documentary. After meeting the director and listening to everything he had to say about how the experience affected them, the humble initial intentions for a short movie about online friendship, the methods they used to capture the footage and the conversations that were had off-camera (that explain some of the jumps from undercover documentary to a more conventional style), it’s impossible to ever doubt this movie’s honesty, and considering how plausible every scene is, it’s bizarre to think otherwise. The amount of reviews I’ve read stating that it’s obviously a fake whilst at the same time criticizing the film-makers for crafting a mundane story that can’t retain interest as it’s such a commonplace scenario is bewildering in its obvious contradiction.

The plot hinges upon a young male artist who becomes friends with a family on Facebook and spends many months in correspondence to them all via e-mail, post, texts and even phone conversations. There’s a talented 8 year-old girl who sells impressive paintings, a doting mother who acts as her agent, and eventually an older sister whom our lead begins to have a romantic relationship with. His brother and friend, both film-makers, decide to start documenting this rather strange set up in the hope of making a short movie. But things soon become suspect and eventually spin out of control.

When I went into this movie I wasn’t sure whether it was real or not, and I was hoping the latter since I was keen for it to follow through with a suitably disturbing ending. There are a number of unnerving moments in the movie, to be sure, but that’s certainly not the route it ends up pursuing. Instead, the movie somewhat accidentally becomes something far more important than either an affecting real-life romance or a predictable warning against the dangers of online deception; it evolves into a very sad, very honest portrayal of a lonely, frustrated, depressed individual who has let their dreams slip away from them and are desperately, painfully obsessively attempting to claw them back by creating a bewildering fantasy world.

The film doesn’t judge nor sensationalize. Its directors aren’t really accomplished enough to do either, and so instead they merely observe, letting the camera be a largely unseen third person account to reflect the events so you can come to your own conclusions.

Of course none of this would matter if the lead character wasn’t so endearingly kind-hearted and simple. He’s certainly not the most interesting lead you could imagine, but it’s his gentle disposition and warm naivety that allows you to both fear for the outcome of his situation and judge the conclusion with fresh unpersuaded eyes, which is an incredibly rare thing in a documentary.

At the end of the day this is hardly a brilliantly made film. The ‘cinematography’ is less aesthetically pleasing than even The Blair Witch Project, and the sound is a complete mess (subtitles are needed to translate most of the dialogue), but the truth is that its scruffy realism is its greatest charm, and by merely sitting back and not interfering with events, we are given a simple but complex slice of life that contains all of cinemas great genres: romance, drama, thriller, tragedy, comedy and even the road-trip flick. I’ve known people who have been through similar experiences to what is shown here, so its relevance as an eye-opening documentary doesn’t impress. But that’s not what the filmmakers were aiming for; their sights were set far higher, and on far more interesting subject matter. They succeeded in spades.

Al White

visit the official site for the 54th BFI London Film Festival

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