It would appear personal and claustrophobically intimate documentaries are the plat du jour these days, with Michel Gondry’s ode to a matriarch, The Thorn In The Heart, and Catfish released within a mere week of one another.
After Nev Schulman, a freelance photographer, gets a photo published in a newspaper, he is contacted via Facebook by a young girl who has adapted the image into a painting. Whilst the artwork is unremarkable, the age of the sender certainly is; an 8-year old girl called Abby. This curious correspondence proceeds to gain traction as more and more canvases, all copied from Nev’s photography, begin to flood the office, the prodigy child’s prolific appetite for art seemingly knowing no bounds.
Flattered, bemused and impressed, Nev regularly replies to Abby’s letters and phone calls, strictly monitored and conducted via Abby’s mother – a reflection of the concerns regarding online acquaintances. In addition to this, Nev then attracts the attentions of an older sister, Megan, and the two initiate a ‘relationship’ with the intention of meeting in the flesh at a later date.
What begins as a quaint ‘will they, won’t they?’ love story rapidly escalates into the tone of a whodunit, Google Maps, YouTube and Search Engines stepping into the traditional role of private eyes. Lurking in the back of the filmmakers’ minds, as well as the audience, is the natural suspicion that the whole affair seems too good to be true. In an incidental scene, cleverly placed to stoke tension, a waitress tells the brothers, “My friend met a guy off the internet the other day and he was a total freak. All the pictures he’d sent were from three years ago, he’d totally lied”.
Like Gondry, the Schulman brothers, occupying the positions of director and protagonist, derive their title from an anecdote towards the film’s conclusion, the ‘Catfish’ in question a reference to a pre-20th century method enabling the long haul transportation of carp; the introduction of catfish to their tanks preventing their companions’ flesh from becoming unpalatable. The metaphor, in the context of the film, is that there are some people in the world who are catfish, placed on Earth to keep the rest of the carp from decaying, to keep them live and vibrant.
Beyond Catfish’s central story lies a thesis about social networking, the impossibility of truly knowing someone without actual physical contact. Like The Social Network’s gentle probing of what makes meeting people online such an attractive alternative to traditional forms, Catfish unintentionally addresses one’s ability to mould your identity into an idealised form which, ironically, belies your own true self.
Undoubtedly, in a similar vein to The Thorn In The Heart, there is the uncomfortable sense that voyeurism is the film’s driving force, some revelations perhaps too sensitive a nerve to be exposed to the public domain. The precise use of The Royal Tennenbaum’s most sentimental score at chosen moments also comes across as somewhat manipulative given what transpires. Nonetheless, Catfish, for all its sculpting and potentially valid claims of exploitation, it is at once riveting and emotionally charged, crafting spectacular momentum out of footage critically lacking in aesthetic, one of its most severe shortcomings.