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(Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman)
14A, 87 minutes
Megan Faccio, Melody C. Roscher, Ariel Schulman, Yaniv Schulman
I’ve always said the best documentaries are the happy accidents, the films that gradually reveal themselves to the filmmakers, as opposed to the filmmakers chasing subjects. Catfish reminds us of Capturing the Friedmans, my personal favourite documentary of the 2000s and perhaps the best example of an unintentional film which begged to be made. Such is the case with Catfish (coincidentally produced by Friedman’s director Andrew Jarecki). A complex story of love and romance in the digital age of social media, it is also a fascinating psychological character study of how social media can give everybody the opportunity to edit the world’s perception of their life.
The opening narration explains to us the seed by which their story found its spark. One day, photographer Niv Schulman, brother of the co-director, received a mysterious package in the mail. It is an oil painting, an artistic rendering of one of his published photographs. Not only iss the painting good, it was drawn by an eight-year old girl from Michigan named Abby. Fascinated by the gesture, Niv contacts Abby via email and they start up a friendly penpal relationship. In fact, his relationship extends to Abby’s mom, Angela and other members of her family.
Via Facebook, Niv meets Megan, Abby’s half-sister, a talented and gorgeous singer/dancer. Over the course of eight months, their Facebook correspondence snowballs into a legitimate internet romance. As the romance appears close to blossoming into a formal meet up, Niv and his filmmaking partners discover a curious discrepancy.
The filmmakers stumble upon a larger story, more complex than a mere internet story, expertly conveying their sense of discovery to the audience. They manage to wring out hairsplitting suspense just by showing Niv surf Facebook and Google facts about Abby and her family. Thus Niv and the filmmakers embark on a new millennium procedural investigation as thrilling as any detective novel, with social media outlets as their tools.
And when the boys choose to free themselves from the confines of their NYC office to physically visit the family, suddenly we find ourselves embroiled in a suspenseful chase. The visit to their Michigan farm in the middle of the night is rendered with astonishing real world Hitchcockian suspense.
And once we know where the film is headed, in the third act, the filmmakers reveal another seismic psychological shift in expectations. The filmmakers handle the truth with admirable poise and respect. And Niv, who at one time poured his heart out in the name of love to Megan, reconciles a betrayal by Megan’s deep psychological neuroses.
Catfish is captivating on so many levels. The examination of the internet and the psychology of perception and multiple personalities all contribute to this broadening of the documentary form itself. Which brings me back to Capturing the Friedmans, which Catfish joins on the shortlist of great films about great personal discovery.