Catfish (2010)

2011 #49
Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman | 84 mins | TV | 12 / PG-13

CatfishCatfish is a documentary (probably — we’ll come to that) in which 20-something Nev falls in love with a girl somewhere else in America over the internet. He and his friends become suspicious that she’s not who she claims and set off to find out The Truth.

Some have said that Catfish reflects our current relationship with social networking technology more than the highly-acclaimed-for-reflecting-our-current-relationship-with-social-networking-technology The Social Network did. They’re right. That’s no criticism of Fincher and Sorkin’s work, though, because I’ve never really held with the notion that their film was a generation-defining tale — it’s about the birth of the largest social networking tool yet seen, but it’s only about that in part; it’s more about relationships between people in business. Catfish, however, is about how said tool (and others) are and can be used, and what effects this can have on human relations.

It’s hard to meaningfully discuss Catfish without looking at what happens towards the end of it, which is obviously spoiler territory, a no-no for any half-decent review aimed at viewers who’ve not viewed the viewing in question. The film’s ‘big reveals’, which everyone talks about coming at the end, actually begin to stack up from about halfway through; there’s no last-minute twist here — the answers are a huge part of the whole film. And so they should be, I think; but it also means if you don’t want to reveal them you have to not discuss a good chunk of the film — the most important chunk, to my mind, because it is after the reveals that Catfish finds its greatest weight and importance.

This bit is definitely fakeBefore I get spoilersome, then, let me say this: you will probably guess where it’s going. Even if you’ve not had it in some way revealed (however little of it) before you watch, early scenes will lead to the obvious conclusion: why am I being shown this if it doesn’t go somewhere? And what’s the obvious place it’s going to go? I think most viewers must guess. But I think many — probably even most — will not guess precisely where it ends up; the exact nature of the truth it finds. So this is not as much of a Thriller as it’s been sold in some quarters. It has suspense, certainly, and it has mysteries that have answers… but there’s not some dark secret at the heart of it all; instead, there’s a painful emotional situation. Already I’m saying too much.

And now I shall go on to discuss things that might get spoilery, including the much-debated topic of whether the film is real or a hoax. If you’ve not seen it, I encourage you to skip to my final two paragraphs.

All documentary is constructed in some way — it is, at best, an edited account of real filmed events. As a society/culture we’ve been taught to assume it’s edited in such a way as to present a true-to-life-(but-abbreviated) account of what Really Happened, but that’s not necessarily the case. When you throw in an authorial voice — an onscreen presence or a voice over — it becomes if anything less truthful, especially if the filmmaker has a particular message they want to convey. Sadly, despite the masses of “don’t trust what you read”/”don’t trust what you see” comments that come from more responsible sourcesWho films the filmer? and/or satire, I still think most people fundamentally believe what they see in a documentary (or they read in a newspaper) to be the truth.

So whatever the reality behind it, Catfish is unquestionably a construct — it has been edited (like all documentaries), so it automatically is; it can’t be anything else. The filmmakers have chosen what they want us to see, whether that be real or staged. The questions of veracity, then, are: did these events really happen, and/or did they happen as the film depicts them?

Some have noted the makers got lucky to be filming when all the major points of the story happened. Rubbish. Poppycock. Stronger words with swearing in them. If they were making a documentary, surely they’d be filming a lot? Especially whenever they knew Nev would be having a phone call with Angela/Megan/etc. There’s nothing in the film to suggest they didn’t shoot dozens or hundreds of hours of footage of Nev reading out Facebook messages and text messages, or dozens of phone calls, then trimmed them right back to the most interesting or relevant (in their eyes, naturally). If they were committed to making a documentary, the likelihood is they would have shot almost all the time, recorded him reading out every message (or as much as they could), then selected the most relevant or revealing bits in the edit. That’s how documentary filmmaking works. And when it gets to the point, surprisingly early on, where they suspect something’s amiss, of course they’re filming all the time: they’re on an investigation and they’re filming that investigation! But is it only the camera being set up?The allegation that it can’t be real because they happened to film everything that happened is nonsense.

That said, there is a theory that some of the earlier scenes were shot later; that they realised they were on to something around the time it started to go awry, then went back and staged earlier events for the sake of storytelling. That explanation I can buy.

In some respects, I find the reaction of viewers more interesting than whether the film is wholly truthful or not. Some people seem to hate and despise Angela for what she did. Really? How heartless a human being are you? What she did was wrong, to a degree (it’s hardly robbery, or murder, or worse, is it?), but she is clearly a woman stuck in a life she’s not happy with and looking for a means of escape; but she’s a fundamentally good person, who won’t abandon the people she cares for and cares about. How people can reach the end of Catfish and still be condemning her I don’t know. She earns our sympathy. If anything, the filmmakers look bad — at times, it looks very much as if they’re about to exploit her or use the film to attack her. They don’t, because they see the truth and they sympathise too. If anything, they use it to try to help her.

If you have any interest in the internet and the way so many people now live their lives through it, with all the social networking it offers, and how that impacts back on their ‘real’ lives, then Catfish demands to be seen. I don’t want to suggest you’ll definitely like or even appreciate it, but I do think you need to see it for yourself. As much as I loved The Social Network The girl... A girl(it’s still on track as the best film I’ve seen in 2011), Catfish probably has more to say about the actual impact of Facebook on our lives than Fincher/Sorkin’s biopic does.

And for those wondering about the unusual title, it’s eventually explained in the film itself. The anecdote that inspired it is interesting, memorable, and quite possibly fictional — how appropriate.

4 out of 5

Catfish is on More4 tomorrow, Tuesday 26th July, at 10pm, and again at 1am.