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Virtual Meets Reality

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

When it comes to documentaries, audiences tend to expect a certain level of authenticity, even if it’s the documentarian’s version of the truth. Doubt from audiences and critics,can be fatal, but a new wave of documentaries, beginning with Exit Through the Gift Shop earlier this year, I’m Still Here, and now Catfish, actively or implicitly challenge, manipulate, and maybe even exploit audience expectations of the documentary format, but to what end? All three leave that question for audiences to answer for themselves.

A hit at the Sundance Film Festival this past January and, unsurprisingly, the object of a bidding war won by Rogue Pictures, a subsidiary of Relativity Media, Catfish centers on Yaniv (Nev) Schulman, a twenty-something, New York City-based photographer. Nev shares a workspace in Tribeca with his brother, Ariel and their mutual friend, Henry Joost, both documentary filmmakers. Nev’s personal life takes a compelling turn when an eight-year old, Michigan-based girl, Abby, contacts him through Facebook and asks his permission to create a painting from one of his photographs.

Over several months, Nev engages Abby, her mother Angela, and Abby’s older sister Meg, a sometime model and singer-songwriter, on Facebook, texting, and with phone conversations. Meg takes an active interest in Nev (and vice versa) and they develop an online romance, trading messages and photos on Facebook, and texts. Making the virtual romance real looks unlikely given where Nev and Meg live, but when Nev continues to pursue Meg online. But soon doubts begin to emerge about the veracity of Meg’s statements and Abby’s status as a wunderkind painter.

Intrigued, curious, and suspicious, not to mention recognizing the documentary potential of the virtual romance and its still unknown consequences, Nev, Ariel, and Henry decide to drive from Colorado, where they’re working on another project, to meet Meg, Abby, and Angela unannounced. Catfish takes a disquieting turn, both for what Nev, Ariel, and Henry discover about Meg, Abby, and Angela (the less said, the better), and for what it potentially says about their intentions and what they chose to reveal or disclose in Catfish about those intentions (short answer: very little).

Temporarily setting the question of manipulation and/or exploitation aside, essentially taking Catfish at face value, the end documented by Ariel and Henry proves to be surprisingly positive, optimistic, and even cathartic. Nev, Ariel, and Henry never reveal themselves to be anything but self-interested in a way typical of men their age and upper middle-class backgrounds, but they, or maybe just Nev, reveal themselves to be far more compassionate than they’ve let on. Or maybe it’s just part of an elaborate act, one last manipulation of the audience to see them and their actions in the best possible light.

If so, it succeeds, but the question of audience manipulation and exploitation lingers, unanswered, calling into question whether we’re seeing something that can be called a “documentary” or something new — not faux or mock documentary, where the audience is in on the joke —between narrative and documentary that requires a new way to describe the filmmakers’ intentions and audience engagement. Whatever word we use, the word “documentary” doesn’t come close to describing Catfish accurately.