Many say that this film is about social networks and how it has caused people to become better liars and invent people out of whole cloth. That may be true, but I do not feel that this is what the film is about. After all, what it describes is not a new phenomenon. Anthony Godby Johnson, a purported 13 year old suffering from AIDS, is one such example. Lying is an inherent part of human nature. Some people simply cannot separate the truth from the lie. Facebook has done little to change that.
That is why the film works – it is not a luddite piece of work. Nor is it really vindictive of what happened Rather, it is about that aspect of human nature that I described above. The people presented in the film are not malevolent tricksters, but kind (if a little unusual) people who dreamed that they would do something more with their lives. And the film does have a happy ending – at least for some of the participants. It is one of the most remarkable films of 2010.
Catfish is a documentary, following Nev Schulman, a young photographer living in New York. He receives a painting of one of his photographs from an eight year old girl named Abby and forms a friendship with the family (including the matriarch, a woman named Angela) while seeking a romantic relationship with Abby’s half sister Megan. Megan is a singer, but when she sends him clips of her songs, Nev discovers that the audio has been ripped from various Youtube videos. The more he investigates the situation, the more he starts to doubt the people he has been talking to really are who the claim to be. Thus, he makes a road trip to Michigan to get to the bottom of it once and for all.
Now, spoilers be damned – it is impossible to discuss the film without revealing what happens. Don’t worry – the biggest bombshell comes right at the end and I wouldn’t dare revealing it. But most of you reading this can probably guess that Angela was fabricating a large majority of the stories. But she is not the villain of the story. She is almost the protagonist. When she is challenged by the narrators about her story, she does not try to defend herself or even rationalize what she is doing. In fact, she seems to have no motivation at all.
This turns the film into a tragedy. Most of the great villains are not great because of what they do. It is how they act. They seem to realize that what they are doing is evil, but it is also a part of who they are. The title of this film actually reinforces this belief (it comes from a story told by Angela’s husband about how catfish were transported in giant vats with cod so the cod would be mobile). Angela is almost as much of a victim of her circumstances as Nev. She is apologetic and tearful in how she describes all of the people she has created.
This is the sort of drama that documentaries are praised for. I don’t think anyone would be as brave to show the internet in this regard. It’s easy to understand why. Angela does do some terrible things to people. She certainly left harm in her wake. But she was just as harmed by her creations as everyone else. She sobs as she talks about how some fake profiles are pieces of herself A performance like hers normally receives tremendous acclaim come awards season. But it is not a performance – Vicki has to live this reality.
There are moments in the film (particularly the fades) that are meant to resemble Facebook. The camera work is deliberately shoddy, and has a definite cinema verite feel. But then, like Vicki’s usage, it is a means rather than an end. Everyone else in the film is completely normal, making the idea that this situation could happen to anyone (and has happened to numerous people) that much more apparent. Overproducing it would have diluted the themes. Besides, I think I saw the truth when I was watching the documentary due to its presentation. But who knows? Maybe I was being taken for a ride in the same way Nev was taken for a ride. It wouldn’t hurt me (or the film) to find that out one bit.
Since making my “best of” list for 2010, there have been two films that I wish I could go back and add. The King’s Speech is one of them. Catfish is the other. It is a very revealing film about human nature and how much the word “truth” has changed in our modern world. What is most incredible is how the phenomenon is not really new, but it is far easier now than ever before. Hopefully, it will cause people to pause a little longer and think a little harder before they go to meet that fantastic person they found online.