Although 2010 won’t go down as The Greatest Year of Filmmaking Ever, it is becoming more and more notable as The Year that Documentaries Blew Our Minds. The latest evidence supporting this assertion is Catfish , a compelling and timely documentary that is nearly impossible to describe without spoiling it for everyone.
Freshly released on DVD, Catfish tells the story of a young New York City photographer named Nev Schulman who becomes pen pals with an admiring clan of Michiganites (themselves also artists of varying degrees) after they see one of his photographs published in a newspaper. For an ostensible lack of anything better to do, his brother Ariel Schulman and friend Henry Joost, both filmmakers, decide to document Nev’s long-distance relationship with the family.
To put it simply, the main controversy surrounding the film involves its representation of reality. At times, Nev’s gleaming white smile and natural charisma seem too Hollywood; the shaky hand-held camera perspective seems too Cloverfield .
Catfish ’s closest analog in 2010 was street artist Bansky’s Exit Through the Gift Shop , a film so riddled with nuance, misdirection and good ol’ fashioned monkey-shining (for lack of a better idiom) that sales of Rogaine temporarily spiked as a result of collective, aggressive head-scratching. The reality is that both of these films are a sign of the times — we are a generation raised on This is Spinal Tap , living in an age of instant information and misinformation. Hucksters and snake-oil peddlers have been allowed to set up shop in the marketplace of ideas, and we have to be suspicious. Right?
Coincidentally, the reality of our day-to-day lives (with Facebook prominently figuring into our lives) is a theme throughout the film. Whether documentary or crockumentary, Catfish is a worthy piece of filmmaking and a startling look into the mirror. After following its increasingly strange narrative and reaching its train-wreck conclusion, we’ve spied on Nev’s world via pixilated close-ups of Facebook walls. When Nev and company fly, we see their plane arc across a Google map. When they’re driving, we see the Garmin giving them directions. They are us, and we are them.
A DVD bonus includes a 24-minute interview with the film’s principle players that mostly centers on the real-or-not debate. The true conspiracy theorists among us likely won’t be swayed by the filmmaker’s answers, but, regardless, it’s a lot of fun to hear a filmmaker directly rebut his or her critics — even if theirs isn’t the final word on the matter.