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Top 25 Art Blog - Creative Tourist

A review of indie film Catfish

Documentary or mockumentary, Catfish has got all the critics talking…

Written by Kat Phan


Image courtesy of Rogue

Initiating a relationship over the Internet is an age-old tale and I have friends who have successfully trodden this path, but not without some initial trepidation. There’s always the joke about boys being deluded about their height, often adding an inch or four to their profiles (or being axe-murderers), and girls uploading old photos when they were a good few pounds lighter (or being bunny boilers). But beyond the aesthetics, how much do you really know about your online confidante? And on the flipside, how far are you willing to stretch the truth to ensure that you are presenting yourself in the best light?

Produced by filmmaker Andrew Jarecki, who directed the brilliant docufilm “Capturing the Friedmans” in 2003, Catfish is the directorial feature film debut of Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, who explore these themes, human psychology and the modern technological landscape as a medium for communication, closely following a ‘virtual’ relationship as it unfolds over Facebook and phone calls. Made with a budget of only around $30,000, the film was an unlikely hit at the Sundance Film Festival last year, which had audience members and critics alike hyperventilating with excitement.


Illustration courtesy of Avril Kelly

When I received my invite to the press screening, I was urged to read as little about Catfish as possible to avoid spoiling my experience of the film. As I would urge you to do the same, I can tell you that writing this review is going to prove difficult but here goes…

Filmed using a grainy handheld camera, the story revolves around the film’s protagonist, Nev Schulman, a young, charismatic, sleepy-eyed New-York based photographer who becomes involved, via Facebook, with an eight-year-old art prodigy named Abby in Michigan. Abby approaches Nev to ask for his permission to use a photograph for a painting and a fraternal relationship ensues between Nev and Abby, which becomes increasingly complex as Nev becomes involved with the rest of her family: Abby’s mother, Angela, and Abby’s attractive horse-riding, guitar-playing, party-loving 19-year-old sister, Megan, along with Megan’s intricate network of friends.  Needless to say, a less fraternal relationship develops between Nev and Megan and before we know it, they are “sexting”, amalgamating naked photos of themselves and speaking every night via the plethora of the networking tools that we have at our disposal today. Nothing, however, is quite as it seems as the film takes several unexpected twists and turns to reach a not entirely surprising yet poignant conclusion. 


Illustration courtesy of Avril Kelly

One of the film’s key strengths lies in Nev’s engaging hopeless romantic, drawing empathy from his viewers as we are taken on a journey of his evolving feelings for Megan and her family. Throughout the course of the film, we see Nev experience infatuation, doubt, anger, disappointment, betrayal and then sympathy - feelings of which are all doubtless familiar to us, whether in the virtual or real world. The way in which the film is shot, where Nev talks about his thoughts and feelings directly to the camera as if we were talking to a family member or a close friend (fitting really seeing as Schulman is Nev’s brother and Joost is one of his best friends), makes us feel as if we are sharing a very private experience with Nev, helping us to bond and identify with his character.

Where David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’sThe Social Network” is about the creation of Facebook, Catfish is a film about the consequences of such creations, which may explain why its subject matter has resonated so strongly with audiences, seeing as approximately 5 billion of us across the globe are subscribed to a mobile phone contract and 500 million of us are active users of Facebook (although I exclude myself from the latter).


Illustration courtesy of Avril Kelly

At the risk of revealing too much, “Catfish” goes far deeper than simply being “another film about Facebook”. It throws up moral questions such as to what extent one can indulge in what superficially appears to be harmless innocent fantasies before we start to infringe on the wellbeing of others. This issue, however, is not strictly confined to the realms of an online environment, although it can be argued that modern technological advances, especially social networking, has made this deception somewhat easier to play out and sustain.

There has been much debate about the authenticity of “Catfish” and I for one am not completely convinced that we are not being taken for a ride, however, regardless of whether the movie is a hoax, Catfish is an absorbing, thought-provoking and affecting indie about hope, crushed dreams and the society that we live in where social media and modern technology provides a platform for our inner-narcissist, potential to deceive or desire to escape reality to a fictional world where life is more kind. In Joost’s own words, “Our profiles are a chance to present ourselves to the world in a way we can completely control – unlike face-to-face interaction”.

Read our exclusive interview with the director of Catfish, Henry Joost, here.

Catfish is currently showing at selected cinemas across the UK and available on DVD from today.  

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