Movie review of new internet documentary film that examines the idea of identity in the age of social networking

So, my love of the internet and its distortion of the truth has already been documented fairly extensively on this site, as was my disdain for recent cyberbullying thriller Chatroom, and as such when I heard the concept around social network thriller/documentary Catfish it was obvious I needed to see it. Unfortunately nobody was available on a Tuesday night in Birmingham for one of its 4 showings in the region at the Electric, so this meant heading to the cinema on my own….

I’m kinda glad I did and kinda disappointed. Catfish itself is a hard movie to talk about without giving the game away as such – it might even have the tagline ‘the less you know the better’ – so I’m probably not going to spend too much time discussing its plotline here for fear of ruining it for the reader. Basically, it concerns two documentary filmmakers who share an office with one of their brothers who happens to be a photographer. After one of his pictures is published in a newspaper he starts corresponding with an 8 year old girl via Facebook, and then starts talking to her mom, and 19 year old sister. The two filmmakers, sensing something is definitely up with this, start filming their interactions, and we watch the story unfold through their eyes. And yeah, you got it, all was definitely not what it seemed.

The first half of the movie is actually fairly suspenseful and interesting as you’re wondering just what exactly is going on but around the hour mark where the big reveal comes and it turns into more of a traditional documentary you’re kind of left feeling disappointed that it is only a documentary and not a Hollywood blockbuster (or at least an indie) when there would have been a way better payoff to the suspense that had been building fairly effectively.

Despite this, the direction from unknowns Ariel Shulman and Henry Joost is fairly impressive, as the choppy editing, minimalist soundtrack and different forms of narration advance the threadbare plot and suspense skilfully during the first hour. A sense of cyberspace and our increasing reliance on technology is also conveyed through frequent fullscreen shots of Facebook messages, Iphone texts and google maps as the relationship between the main characters develops. This really aids the delivery of the idea that these days human interaction is too reliant upon anonymity, which I guess is the main point of the film.

Unfortunately, the direction also conveys the hopelessness, patheticity and disdain that the directors must have felt for their subjects (and real life brother in one case!!) during the filming process and you wonder if they aren’t just manipulating these characters to make a quick buck. However, I don’t really see how this could have been avoided given the subject matter and the directors should probably be commended for spotting such an opportunity so early on and actually having the initiative to make a movie out of it.

Of course, there has been the inevitable deliberation over the credibility of the story but, -despite the fact that the directors seemed to have their cameras on at some fairly pivotal moments in the ‘plot’  (this is a criticism that can be levelled at any ‘documentary’ though) – there seems to be little to suggest that it is. A quick Google search can confirm some of the facts presented, and in any case, the outcome is so mundane and unremarkable that it really begs the question as to why someone would have bothered to script it in the first place.

Having said that it’s still a way more interesting and intelligent look at the human condition and how the internet can manipulate and distort this than crap like Chatroom, so it is worth watching if you’re interested in that aspect of society and the possible connotations of social networking technology in the hands of a huge loser with no life. Just don’t expect to be blown away by it.


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