Saturday, 22 January 2011

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - Catfish

Directed by:
Henry Joost
Ariel Schulman

Produced by:
Andrew Jarecki
Mark Smerling
Henry Joost
Ariel Schulman

Henry Joost
Ariel Schulman
Yaniv Schulman

Editing by: Zachary Stuart-Pontier

Distributed by: Rogue Pictures

Release date(s):
January 22, 2010 (Sundance Film Festival - Premiere)
September 17, 2010 (United States)
December 17, 2010 (United Kingdom)

Running time: 86 minutes

Country: United States

Language: English

Gross revenue (as of publication): $3, 237, 343

Fantastic, I've only got about two weeks left of reviewing films before my year-end awards, and I'm posting my first documentary review now. For someone who is a fan of documentary film and considers it among my favourite 'genres', it's pretty bad going. Nevertheless, I really love the genre (I suppose Anvil! The Story Of Anvil being my best film last year says enough) and I always find a good documentary to be refreshing in the context of how many bad fictional narrative films I see every year. The best documentary films prove that stories can be found out in the real world as gripping as any work of fiction from the depths of one's imagination.

Catfish is one of two documentaries released this year (along with Exit Through The Gift Shop) that have brought about whispers in the film community. These whispers concern the nature of the films themselves, whether or not they are authentic documentaries or hoaxes. TIME dedicated an entire article by Mary Pols on Catfish, writing, "as you watch Catfish, squirming in anticipation of the trouble that must lie ahead - why else would this be a movie? - you're likely to think this is the real face of social networking." Various audience members at screenings have also questioned the legitimacy of the film as documentary. Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert has conclusively stated his belief that "everyone in the film is exactly as the film portrays them." This has been Catfish's main talking point, although there is more worth discussing.

The story of Catfish (whether 'real' or not) follows New York photographer Yaniv 'Nev' Schulman. He lives with his brother Ariel and friend Henry Joost. When Nev becomes friends on Facebook with Abby Pierce, an eight-year-old child prodigy who paints copies of his photographs, Ariel and Henry decide to shoot a documentary detailing the friendship. Nev becomes friends with her mother Angela and her older half-sister Megan. The film shows the development of a long-distance relationship between Nev and Megan, who have never met before. However, holes begin to appear in the stories that the Pierce’ tell Nev, and things are not what they seem.

Yeah, I know, it sounds like the premise for a thriller. Nevertheless, this is precisely what makes Catfish so enticing and fascinating a documentary. Whether or not it is down to luck or intentional, the Schulman's and Joost have captured an amazing story. It is not hard to believe that this is too good to be true, and if it is indeed fake it is a masterfully manipulative work. However, real life has proven time and time again to be stronger than fiction, so I have faith that this is a legitimate documentary. The 'story', if you will, remains with you after the film has finished and has a genuine power to it. As such, although there is not skilful cinematography in the classical sense, it takes great skill knowing what and when to shoot, and the three do a fine job of this.

To capture such an amazing story is an admirable job. However, for documentaries, hours upon hours of film are shot and put together to make a feature-length film. As such, in order for the films to work, much of it relies upon the editing. Zachary Stuart-Pontier has done a great job of cutting down this film to a digestible size. This is the kind of film that really could have been a bloated preachy mess, but instead it is a highly watchable work, and the editing plays a key part in it being so. Talk has been made about how this (and Exit Through The Gift Shop) could be hoax films. Personally, I feel it is because these are two very new types of documentary. The way in which they are made, particularly in the editing, is a reflection of the postmodernist world we live in. As Godfrey Reggio, director of Koyaanisqatsi once said, "technology has become as ubiquitous as the air we breathe." Catfish depicts the journey of Nev's long-distance relationship in this world of omnipresent technology. The terrific blending of various simulacra such as Facebook, YouTube, Google Maps etc is appropriate for the work. Zachary Stuart-Pontier's work here is very innovative, and contributes greatly to the postmodernist romance of Catfish.

Also, the Schulman's and Joost must be credited for the way in which they approached the topic matter at hand. A big hand must be given to Nev Schulman for letting his brother and Henry shoot this documentary surrounding his private life. There are some very personal moments that one would be forgiven for wanting to keep private, and he displays great courage in letting the film continue. Furthermore, once things become clearer (which I won't spoil), the three manage to keep a tone that goes above exploitation and inject the film with a true sense of humanity and pathos. There is nothing horrible morally with the film or the way it depicts any of the people in it, so well done to them for avoiding the labels, apathy and lack of understanding displayed by various closed-minded individuals in our society.

Most of the criticisms fired towards Catfish seem to be directed either at whether or not it is a documentary and the so-called hipster media look of the film. Despite not sharing criticisms in these departments, I have some of my own in different departments. Perhaps the Schulman's and Joost were limited with what they were able to get, but various thematic content and commentary is introduced in the film, but never really developed on. The same standards for thematic content cross over, whether fiction or non-fiction. Take Anvil! for instance. This is a film that is a bare eighty-one minutes including about ten minutes of credits, yet is one of the fullest depictions of a friendship in cinematic history. In Catfish, it is kind of like a documentary Gangs Of New York, with so much things being introduced and merely left on the surface. Maybe the filmmakers don't know the answers but it is their duty to make their theories clear so that we can draw our own hypothesis. Challenging content rises in the film, but is never elaborated upon. It really is a shame, because there is a lot good about Catfish. While it does a great job of depicting this personal relationship, there is so much to be said about the medium of social networking, especially considering the film's nature that is left unsaid.

Unfortunately, Catfish is not a masterpiece. It leaves much of the themes and concepts up in the air without them being elaborated, no fine balance made to try and establish something without ramming it down the audiences throat. There is so much that could have been said left unsaid. However, Catfish is a documentary that does a great job of capturing a fascinating story. The Schulmans and Joost shoot very well, but the real star is the postmodernist editing of Zachary Stuart-Pontier. Also, a great pat on the back must go to Nev Schulman for going through with the film, and to both Schulman's and Joost in showing human affection that is truly lacking our apathetic world. Catfish's greatest testament is the fact that it does stay with you and have a great amount of resonance.

The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 8.1/10

The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis – Alright, I suppose (one of those dull, uneventful days that plagues our lives and wastes our precious time)

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