Yaniv Schulman embarks upon a romance by computer in Catfish

If you spend any time at all online interacting with relative strangers, you need to see Catfish. It’s a documentary that follows a 24-year-old New York photographer named Yaniv “Nev” Schulman as he falls for Megan, a pretty young woman from a small town in Michigan with whom he’s only communicated online and by telephone. Documenting this modern relationship as it unfolds are Nev’s brother Ariel and his filmmaking partner Henry Joost. It’s a story that captures the blind hope, the mystery, the suspense and the dangers of modern high-tech romance and it ultimately reveals the powerful loneliness driving it all. No matter the level of your own online connections – whether you’ve ever physically met a person or simply engaged in casual Facebook comments with strangers – there is something here to strike a chord with anyone who is wired.

Nev “met” Megan after her 8-year-old sister Abby saw one of Nev’s photographs published in a newspaper and wrote him a letter asking if it was ok if she painted it. Charmed by the resulting watercolor, Nev struck up a back and forth interaction with Abby that quickly grew to include Abby’s mother and ultimately Megan. There’s something about the internet, the way it can transcend geography and tap into our most intimate thoughts while also providing a perceived wall of safety in which to express them, that can intensify and speed up the business of romance. That’s exactly what happens between Nev and Megan. Before long, Nev comes to feel he’s in love and he craves the physical closeness he now feels emotionally.

While the internet can expedite a relationship to a certain point, the real time physical distance can also breed a natural insecurity and suspicion. For Nev, aspects of Megan’s story don’t quite add up. There are perfectly plausible explanations to the inconsistencies and so much of her story seems secure – Nev has interacted wit Megan’s mother on the telephone and even her numerous friends on Facebook – but he knows until he actually meets her he’ll never really know her whole story. It’s at that point he decides the only solution is to head to Michigan to surprise Megan with a visit. The rest of the story of Catfish (including an explanation of the title) unfolds from there.

Captured entirely on the fly with low budget video equipment, Catfish is not a polished film. The jumpy, grainy images and stream-of-conscious narrative might be off-putting if you like your romantic mysteries slick and Hollywood, but the immediacy and lack of self-consciousness to Joost and Schulman’s film are among its many charms.

Another issue with the film is its unfortunate marketing. Spurred on probably by a curious overreaction at Sundance, the trailer and poster for Catfish have played into the idea that there’s some kind of crazy twist part way through the film that will leave your jaw on the floor. That’s not only untrue, it’s unfair to the movie itself. Catfish deserves better than the gimmick treatment. While there’s a strong element of suspense and mystery since you can’t be sure how Nev’s story will unfold, not knowing is part of the immediate pleasure. If you go in expecting some kind of sensational fireworks, it will only dampen the story’s ultimate real-life impact.

There has also been some controversy surrounding Catfish since its Sundance premiere about whether it’s fact or fiction. Made cynical perhaps by recent documentaries that blur the line between reality and imagination – films such as Exit Through the Gift Shop and I’m Still Here – a number of viewers seem unable to believe this is really a documentary and not made up, or at least that the filmmakers didn’t know more about the situation going in than they let on. Morgan Spurlock supposedly called it something like the best fake documentary he’s ever seen. My personal feeling is that the story is real, or as real as anything can be when it unfolds knowingly before cameras. It should be noted that the filmmakers have maintained its veracity in a number of subsequent interviews, but you’ll have to decide for yourself.

Is the movie as powerful if it turns out to be fiction? Not quite, though if it’s fake Joost and the Schulmans have done a remarkable job of capturing the thrill, the queasiness, the sometimes willful blindness and the potential foolishness of being in love online. Whether it’s real or staged, Catfish is a surprising, engaging and ultimately poignant warts-and-all story of two people looking for light at the end of a dark and lonely tunnel. It also leaves you wondering whether the internet is a tool to bring people together or whether it simply provides another way for us to distance ourselves from the real world. Maybe it’s both.

Catfish. USA 2010. Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman. Cinematography by Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman and Yaniv Schulman. Edited by Zachary Stuart-Pontiere. 1 hour 26 minutes. Not rated by the MPAA. 4 stars (out of 5)

2 Responses to “Catfish (2010)”

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