Catfish (2010) dir. Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost
**** (warning, dangerous spoilers below)
By Alan Bacchus
I’ve always said the best documentaries are the happy accidents, the films which reveal themselves to the filmmakers, as opposed to the filmmakers chasing subjects. “Catfish“ reminds us of “Capturing the Friedmans, my personal favourite documentary of the 2000’s and perhaps the best example of an unintentional film which begged to be made. Such is the case with ‘Catfish’ (coincidentally produced by Friedman’s director Andrew Jarecki). At once a complex story of love and romance in the digital age of social media, but also a fascinating psychological character study of how social media can give everybody the opportunity to edit one’s perception of his or her life.
The opening narration explains to us the seed by which their story found its spark. One day, photographer Niv Schulman, brother of the co-director, received a mysterious package in the mail. It was a oil painting artistic rendering of one of his photographs which appeared in a magazine. Not only was the painting good, but it was drawn by an eight-year old girl named Abby from Michigan. Fascinated by the gesture Niv contacts Abby via email and they start up a friendly penpal relationship. In fact, his relationship extends to Abby’s mom, Angela and other members of her family.
Via Facebook, Niv meets Megan, Abby’s half-sister, a talented and gorgeous singer/dancer. Over the course of eight months a few Facebook messages snowballs into a legitmate internet romance. As the romance appears close to blossoming into a formal in person meet up, a curious discrepancy is discovered by Niv, and his filmmaking partners.
The filmmakers stumble upon a larger story, more complex than a mere internet story, but a story in which they don’t know where it might lead. Schulman and Joost expertly convey this sense of discovery in both the participants and to the audience. They manage to wring out hairsplitting suspense just by watching Niv surf facebook, and google some facts about Abby and her family. Thus Niv and the filmmakers embark on a new millennium procedural investigation as thrilling as any detective novel, with social media outlets as their tools.
And when the boys choose to free themselves from the confines of their NYC office to physically visit the family suddenly we find ourselves embroiled in a suspenseful chase. The visit to the Michigan farm in the middle of the night is rendered with astonishing real world Hitchcockian suspense.
And once we know where the film is headed, in the third act, the filmmakers reveal another seismic psychological shift in expectations. The filmmakers handle the truth with admirable poise and respect. Especially for Niv who at one time poured his heart out in the name of love to Megan reconciles a betrayal with Megan’s deep psychological neuroses.
“Catfish” is captivating on so many levels, from the examination of the internet to the psychology of perception and multiple personalities all contribute to this broadening of the documentary form itself. Which brings me back to “Capturing the Friedmans”, which “Catfish” joins on the shortlist of great films of great personal discovery.