Sunday 19 December 2010

CATFISH review

Now in cinemas is this intriguing documentary/love story about the relationships we form through the internet and social networking, and of the potential risks involved. Find out more, next...

New York based photographer Yuniv 'Nev' Schulman has started an online friendship with a talented young girl named Abby. She likes to do paintings based on photographs, and has used some of Nev's work as inspiration. Soon Nev is chatting online with all of Abby's extended family, including her mother Angela and her older sister Megan. Seeing that Nev is slowly developing a romantic relationship with Megan, his brother Rel starts to film their curious encounters over the internet, hoping to document this very 21st Century romance. After months of phone calls, parcels and text messages between the two, Rel decides that they should travel to Michigan so Nev and Megan can meet in person, on camera; and that's where things start to get a little strange.

I'd like to start off by saying that this film is a better experience if you know as little about it as possible. If you're looking for a quick recommendation, here you go...5 stars. Now go and watch it. However, If you need a bit more convincing and would like to read a bit further, I promise not to offer any major spoilers for Catfish in this review.

The premise for the documentary is basic enough. Nev (rhymes with Steve) is a charismatic young guy who starts flirting through Facebook with the equally attractive Megan. They share songs and photos and develop quite a sweet relationship, hampered by the distance imposed between them. The connection Nev and Megan share over the internet is real, so to follow that story through to a face to face meeting to see if the spark is still present is too intriguing a prospect to not document. There is a real love story here, but to call it unconventional is an understatement.

There's been some speculation over whether this story is real or not. I'm sure that ten minutes of research on the internet would yield conclusive proof as to whether it is a hoax or not, but I'm avoiding the temptation to dig any deeper. I've seen the film and made my own conclusion. This story is so amazing that it can only be real. It HAS to be real. It's interesting that Catfish has been released during the same year as Exit Through the Gift Shop and I'm Still Here, two other 'documentaries' that have suffered similar scrutiny over the reality they show on screen. I'm Still Here may have been revealed as an obvious hoax by the filmmakers (too early in the film's life in my opinion), but there's nothing here to match the ridiculousness of Joaquin Phoenix's rap star exploits. I still insist that Exit Through the Gift Shop is a genuine document of Thierry Guetta's rise to art world fame, but even if it's not, I don't think Banksy will ever tell us.

Catfish is not necessarily a film you need to see in the cinema (the DVD is scheduled for release in early January), but it's an enhanced experience if you watch it with a crowd. The collective sound of jaws hitting the floor, followed by the awed silence as the story unravels and all the main characters are brought into play, was one of my favourite cinematic experiences this year.

Occasionally bizarre and often quite moving, this is an absolute one of a kind film. The revelations as the real story comes to light are astonishing, and as the film starts to pull back the curtain, heart palpitations would not be an over reaction. I knew things weren't going to be as easy as ABC, otherwise this film wouldn't have been so talked about, but there's so many directions this story could take from its basic premise, I was on the edge of my seat waiting to find out the truth. It could have become a heartwarming family drama, a horror or a comedy. In fact, as well as being a little bit of all those things, it's also the tensest thriller of the year.

For a film so shrouded in mystery with a near incomprehensible marketing campaign, there's a danger that some people may feel cheated or let down if the story of Catfish doesn't pan out how they expected. Well, it probably won't do, but I'd be shocked if anyone left the cinema feeling disappointed by the outcome. The film has been given the support of Capturing the Friedmans' director Andrew Jarecki, who came on board as producer after the film made a big splash at Sundance this year. If you've seen Capturing the Friedmans there's comparison's to be made with Catfish, but I'll leave it at that as to not spoil anything.

Seeing as the film only exists thanks to the use of computers, the filmmakers have chosen to never stray too far from a monitor, using Google maps as a geographical guide and zoomed in images as a way of identifying the characters. This keeps the early parts of the film going before giving way to the real contacts between people, moving away from social networking and onto social interactions. The first time directors should be proud of what they've achieved here, although once the real story unfolded all they had to do was point and shoot to ensure Catfish was a must see documentary.

More than David Fincher's The Social Network, Catfish is a fascinating look at human behaviour and the power that modern technology can have on our lives. Far from being fiercely anti-facebook or dead against the computerisation of the world, these films are merely acting as warnings of the way we live our lives and of things to come.

Sooner or later the only proof of a person's existence is going to be from what they post online.


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