Film Review: Catfish

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Alluring from start to fin-ish.

Catfish, Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, USA, 87 min

Reclined in a wicker chair on the porch of his Michigan home, Vince Wesselman has the faintest hint of a smile creeping across his lined face. Eyes wrinkled with nostalgia, he embarks upon a story, an old naval tale of sorts, telling the filmmakers how companies would ship codfish from Alaska to China – but the long journey would result in their flesh becoming tasteless pulp. “So this guy came up with this idea that if you put these cods in these big vats, put some catfish in with them,” he drawls, his vowels distorted by a soft, southern twang, “and the catfish would keep the cod agile. And there are those people who are catfish in life.” Here, he unknowingly captures the essence of this innovative documentary: for it is his wife, Angela, who proves herself to be the catfish within this gripping narrative.

The main protagonist, though, is Nev Schulman, a young photographer by trade. His life becomes the subject of this fascinating, fly-on-the-wall film when his brother (Ariel) and friend (Henry Joost) decide to record his life. So, what specific happenings are deemed so deserving of being captured on film? The beginning is shown to us as just that: a beginning. The start of an intimate friendship between Nev and eight-year-old Abby, from Michigan. She is Angela’s child prodigy of a daughter and starts to correspond regularly with Nev, sending him her own paintings of his photographs.

Stylistically comparable to The Blair Witch Project, the viewer lives each moment with Nev as the unfolding events are captured on high definition compact camcorders. It is this spontaneity which makes the film so appealing; a favourite scene is his unwrapping of the parcels sent to him by Abby, him lining them up like a mini Tate Modern. The intimacy of the film is maintained by including footage from various Youtube videos, recordings of telephone conversations, and zoomed in close-ups of texts and instant messages. Although taking place over a course of about eight or nine months, the narrative noticeably picks up speed when Abby’s attractive half-sister, Megan, becomes friends with Nev through the medium of a social network. We are all aware of the dangers of meeting somebody online, but Megan is NOT the stereotypical “internet pervert”: a sixty-something naked man in a flickering room, touching himself to the strains of virtual conversation. Part of what he dubs “the Facebook Family”, she is instrumental in the direction that the movie then takes. After falling in love with Megan after several months of correspondence, the filmmakers follow Nev on his quest to her Michigan home, which he hopes will be fruitful in finding him answers.

To reveal the plot in greater detail would do both the film and the viewer the most incredible injustice, as it is a story so gripping, with such unexpected twists, that one must go into the film as a clean slate. What I will say, is that throughout the discourse of the movie the plot moves in such a way (with each event occurring at just the right time) that it genuinely raised my suspicions about its authenticity. However, the filmmakers have vehemently stood by their claims of originality, stating in follow-up interviews that they could not quite believe its subsequent direction themselves.

A hit at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, one thing about Catfish can be sure. This is not only a film of youth, passion and adventure; but also one of a touching tenderness, an understanding of human emotion and a poignancy of character which is evident throughout – just get ready for a much more sinister subtext. And one you will fall for hook, line and sinker.

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