I’m not one for spending much time on researching the background to films. For me, reviewing begins and ends with the movie. I pay no heed to director or actor reputations, how the movie was made, other critics’ opinions, box office takings etc – I’m only interested in the final product, whether it’s any good, and why. And I try to avoid knowing anything about a movie before I see it, although trailers, TV movie review shows etc make this problematic.
In the case of Catfish, I’d idly read a report or two about it on the web some time back, and noted that it had set off quite a buzz on its release in America. My vague impression was that it was some sort of current-day Blair Witch Project – a pseudo-doco horror story about a Facebook encounter that ended badly. There have been a lot of these pseudo-docos/mockumentaries released in recent times: Paper Heart, Paranormal Activity, Exit Through The Gift Shop, I’m Still Here spring immediately to mind. Frankly, I find all this playing with the audience stuff a bit tedious. Thus, I approached my viewing of Catfish with a measure of scepticism.
So much for preconception – this is one right out of the box. Truly. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. So intrigued was I that I was compelled to do some serious post-viewing research to try to satisfy myself that this really is what it appears to be. Which is what?
Well let’s start with what it’s not. It’s not cinéma vérité. There is nothing staged, and no deliberate manipulation of subjects before the camera. This is ‘real life’ captured on film as it happens. Typically of cinéma vérité, the filmmakers take part in the action, but they have no idea of what’s about to happen next, and no overall plan except to keep on filming. They don’t even know they have a film until it finds its own form and somehow resolves itself.
It’s not a chronicle – that is, a chronologically linear historical record of events. It did begin as a chronicle, but the editing process necessarily imposed a selective filter on the events in order to construct a coherent narrative and whittle the many hours recorded down to a mere 86 minutes.
It is a documentary, but one that I believe is unique. While there have been plenty of precedents of docos or films shot without a script, few started life as mere filmic note-taking of the everyday trivia of a subject’s life, with no underlying intention on the part of the filmmakers to shoot a feature-length story as it unfolded. And no other documentary, to my knowledge, has been constructed entirely from recordings of events as they happened, with no reconstructions, no re-shoots, and no voiceovers, talking heads or other narrative devices.
Further, I am not aware of any other doco where fiction and fantasy co-exist as intrinsic elements as they do here – and even more astonishingly, these elements are outside the control of the filmmakers (except, to a degree, in the editing room)! No one knew this story was a story until it conceived and birthed itself out of a Facebook encounter, nor how it would end or when! There was no author, but there was a hidden creative force with limited power, hostage to the reactions of a leading real life player in a virtual drama that crosses over into ‘real life’. I could go on, but I dare not; complexities beget complexities. The more you try to pin this baby down, the more it struggles against categorisation. And I imagine that unless you’ve seen the film all this is sounding rather baffling.
I should add that the complexity is in the analysis. The film itself is simple in its presentation, easy to watch, and for the most part compelling – not only in its content but in its modus operandi. That is, the story unfolds for the audience as it did for the filmmakers, who accurately describe the process as the filmic equivalent of Gonzo journalism.
Here’s the basic synopsis. When an 8-year-old girl from Michigan, Amy, posts photographer Nev Schulman her painting of one of his photos, he begins corresponding with her, and then her family, through Facebook. Turns out Amy has a spunky older sister, songwriter Megan, with whom Nev falls in love via ever more intimate Facebook and phone exchanges. One thing leads to another and Nev decides to visit Megan and family in person. Thus begins a road trip with outcomes that are stranger than fiction, and mighty disturbing. That’s all you’re getting folks. To divulge any more as a reviewer would be irresponsible. As the promo states, the less you know the better.
The guys behind this fascinating work are small film producers Ariel ‘Rel’ Schulman and Henry Joost, and main subject Nev (Rel’s brother). Best friends, they habitually spend most of their waking hours together in their office. While Rel and Henry’s commercial flimmaking (ads etc) is done on 35mmm their real love is “tiny and immediate cinema” using miniature HD cameras. They habitually shoot each other, recording the minutiae of their lives. Rel and Henry have stacks of hard drives full of such footage, all meticulously labelled for content, but mostly unwatched. They’re not the first or only folk to do this, of course, but to my knowledge they’re the first to stumble on a compelling real life story, to film it as it happened, and then to turn their recordings into a groundbreaking feature-length film.
So why have I spent most of this review on the background to the film, when that is usually of little concern to me? Because I wanted to satisfy myself that WYSIWYG. I believe it is. Having pored over the production notes and carefully read through interviews with the filmmakers, I am convinced that there are no postmodernist hi-jinks being played out here.
Go and see this. It not only breaks new ground as a documentary, but it’s very much of now, a product of modern technology. It is also an investigation into the nature of identity in the context of contemporary communication modes that is funny, tragic, poignant and thought-provoking. I wouldn’t rate it as a great piece of doco filmmaking per se, but as the first of a kind, it is historically significant.
For other Boomtown Rap movie reviews, see Movie Review Archives