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Catfish (Henry Joost | Ariel Schulman, 2010)


Catfish, the bracing and profound first feature from Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, offers the sort of surprises that could only be ripped from reality. This documentary, which clearly started out with different ambitions than it ended up with, features filmmakers who bravely charge toward a story, not knowing what they are chasing. The effect on viewers, who will surely share the sense of discovery that the young documentarians experience, is both unique and exhilarating.


Catfish has few parallels in filmmaking, and it hinges to some degree on its narrative’s twists, making it somewhat difficult to describe. Over the course of its runtime, it plays with several divergent tones, presenting itself alternatively as a romance, a thriller, and a human drama. It effectively poses as each of these genres, all the while maintaining a sense of suspense as it sketches out two fascinating character arcs, each of which calls into question the shifting power dynamics and level of exploitation that seems inherent in any attempt at documentary filmmaking.


Of course, technology can alter power structures. Catfish makes this its thesis, examining the way that social networking sites, such as Facebook, alter the nature of our relationships. Such a message might seem trite were it not so deftly articulated by Catfish’s unpredictable series of events. The stirrings of love and connection that we see our young subject Nev experience in the first half of the film help to explain the surprising twist that utterly transforms its second. Social networking is presented here as an immersive cocoon of affirmation that offers pitfalls and potentially life-changing epiphanies in equal measures.


Although Catfish, by the nature of its construction, is formally slapdash at times, with little attention paid to framing or image-making, the content that is enabled by the filmmakers’ vérité approach more than justifies the method of its construction. Bravely charging into uncharted territory and confronting emotions that would be easier to ignore, Catfish emerges as an unexpectedly compassionate work. The confessional attitudes of its subjects are analyzed cogently. Their willingness their lives as an open book are revealed to be an act of constant self-editing, and yet there is no condemnation in this assessment of our current state of affairs. Catfish may be a film that exists so far beyond the intentions of the filmmakers that crediting them with its success seems somewhat beside the point. This is no small part of its glory, however, and what makes it an absolutely essential documentary experience.



Jeremy Heilman