Catfish (Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman, 2010)


Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman. Rating: 12A. Running time: 87 minutes.

Catfish is more horrifying as a chance documentary than most films which try to scare us. By the end I felt sick to the stomach and did not want to sleep. I couldn’t stop playing its conclusions around in my mind, trying to foresee my forthcoming nightmares. It’s final revelation is repulsive. I don’t want to revisit this documentary again. I couldn’t revisit it again without dragging myself through a swamp of disgust.

The source of the story is the virtual encounter of Nev, a young NY photographer, with Abi, an eight year old girl from Michigan who sends him artwork inspired by his images. The obligatory Facebook adding begins, expanding from the girl to her mother, father, and flirtatious older sister Megan, to name but a few. Nev speaks to them on the phone, continues to send packages backwards and forwards, and even ends up trading sex texts with this latter girl who’s strangely besotted with a man she has never met. To sum up and stay spoilerless, cracks begin to appear in a reality which slowly reveals itself to be a façade. Megan sends song recordings, allegedly by herself, which are nicked straight off YouTube. Abi is said to be a local celebrity with her own art gallery which googling proves to be non-existent. Nev and his friends head out there, intrigued and determined to get to the bottom of things.

Now, it’s not even worth trying to conceal one aspect of what unfolds: clearly some element of deception is going on, as evidenced by the small signs early on and the fact this is even a film. The important questions are what is the nature of the deception, and to what extent is it practised? The conclusion is not that a 60 year old gay guy has been jacking off to photos of Nev, constructing this fantasy to sustain access to his profile. It is a lot more intriguing and sophisticated than that, and it’s also infinitely more disturbing. I cannot begin to comprehend the mental damage the truth will have done to Nev as the real life victim of this hoax. I try to imagine his situation, and I’m certain I would break down for at least a month.

I’m not praising Catfish strictly as a piece of art: it’s made well, but ‘well’ is all. There’s nothing loud about the style and methods here; it’s all about the content being reliably carried by it. The ‘praise,’ if that’s the word, is for that very content, which feels such a strange use of language not only because what happened is far from enjoyable, but also because Catfish’s creators didn’t intend in any sense what they ended up with.

Or so they, and I, are claiming. Some have expressed doubts about the authenticity of what we see here. Nev claims to be conned, but apparently at Sundance questions were common regarding whether he was the one conning us. People have struggled to believe these boys would be so quick to record reality so thoroughly from the very beginning, and it’s also been questioned whether they could have sincerely been in the dark for so long.

I don’t buy it. Firstly, because as they rightly point out, this would make Nev the next Marlon Brando. There are no signs whatsoever that he is acting. But – and this is the crucial point – more obvious than this is the fact that we, or at least I, despite knowing a twist was on the horizon could not foresee what that twist would be, and yet we see exactly what they live through, and we have the benefit of being on the look out where they had no reason to be so skeptical throughout. It is easy to rationalise away your aftershock by claiming its source to be phoney. But if, as I’m predicting, you are oblivious until the end like me, there’s no reason not to take what we see at face value. And what we see is absolutely chilling.

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