Posted by: Paul | May 9, 2011

Catfish…Fact(ish)?

This intriguing documentary was on More4 over the weekend. I read about it and some of the accusations levelled against its veracity on release last year and made a mental note at the time to catch it – somewhat ironic, I thought, that it aired under the ‘True Stories’ strand!

Yaniv ‘Nev’ Schulman is a young photographer living in New York. He lives and works alongside his brother Ariel (‘Rel’), who is a filmmaker working with another close friend, Henry Joost. They specialise in dance film and photography, and one day Nev receives through the post a painting copied from a photograph he took for an article. The painting is extraordinary in that it purports to be from an 8-year-old Michigan girl named Abby. Intrigued, Nev strikes up a friendship with her via Facebook, and soon finds himself connected not just to Abby but a whole coterie of people seemingly connected to her – including her mother Angela, Angela’s husband Vince, and Abby’s older sister Megan. Through Facebook messages, email, phone calls and exchanges of many photographs, Nev strikes up an intimate, if long distance, relationship with Megan.

But all is not as it seems. Why is Nev never able to get to speak to Abby herself on the phone? Is an eight-year-old really capable of such paintings? And how is Megan able to record cover versions of seemingly any song he chooses, at just an hour’s notice?

To say much more would be spoling the surprise, so I’ll turn instead to the controversy surrounding the film. Morgan Spurlock, he of ‘Super Size Me’ fame, called it ‘the best fake documentary I’ve ever seen.’ But is it? The filmmakers are standing steadfastly behind their material, saying that the seemingly perfect sequence of events is just coincidence, and is genuinely the way things happened as they were filming.

I admit, as I was watching it did feel a little too good to be true. But I was watching with the question mark in my mind over the ‘truth’ of the film, and it’s debateable whether someone coming to it afresh would feel the same. My best guess is that the crux of the story is accurate, and earlier scenes were staged later in order to better frame the narrative and kick things off. Otherwise, why are they making the film at this time, in this way? It feels much more like they started about a third of the way in, once Nev began his online relationship with Megan, when it seemed like perhaps there was a story to tell about how this sweet, unusual romance came about. And then when the romance becomes something else, they need a way to go back and make the circumstances seem a little suspect from the off.

That’s my take on it, anyway. ‘Real’ or not, it’s still an entertaining and compelling story, and Nev’s reactions to certain situations look and feel so natural that all concerned are either brilliant actors, or it IS real. We may never know for sure. I encourage you to watch it and make up your own mind!

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