Catfish: Beyond Real And Beyond Fake

Published on January 30th, 2012 in: Documentaries, Found Footage, Issues, Media, Movie Reviews, Movies, Oh No You Didn't, The Internets |

By Less Lee Moore

Living on the Internet means that you often have to dodge spoilers. Luckily, the Internet is also so crammed with information there are enough things with which to distract yourself.

catfish movie poster

Such was the case with Catfish, a 2010 documentary that caught my attention via its unsettling trailer, which seemed like a faux documentary horror movie along the lines of The Blair Witch Project or the Paranormal Activity series. It was clear that an appreciation of the film was a case of “less is more,” so I added it to my DVD queue and successfully avoided spoilers for almost two years.

When I finally watched Catfish earlier this week, my stomach was in knots for at least 45 minutes until the movie completely . . . I’ll stop here because if you haven’t seen Catfish, you should watch it, and you should watch it not knowing any more than I did.

Catfish is a remarkable film and one that is thrilling, upsetting, disturbing, and moving. It makes incredible use of technology in its presentation of the Internet persona through GPS, Google, YouTube, Facebook, and all the other forms of social and searchable media we use every day. Such technology is so easily accessible and so widely used that it becomes a part of our lives that we take for granted, even though we assign it so much importance. We take all the veracity it reveals to us on faith.

As far as Internet personas, it’s common knowledge that we want to show everyone the best of ourselves, even if that means we make ourselves seem better than we are. But there is always a gap between our “real” selves and our Internet selves.

The width of this gap will likely determine how you treat your Internet friends. Do you treat them the same as your “real life” friends? Better? Worse? Do you subscribe to the “It’s just the Internet” theory to make yourself feel better about what you see and read there? The width of this gap will also determine how much Internet interactions affect you when you’re not on the Internet.

These were the ideas swirling around in my head right after I watched Catfish and right before I started looking up reviews online. Then, much like the film itself, everything changed. SPOILERS BEHIND THE CUT!

There are spoiler-free reviews which praise the movie highly, and those which provide constructive criticism, but have concerns about potential backlash. A hint of what that backlash might consist of appears in a New York Times review and then rears its inevitable ugly head in Movieline, which asks if Catfish has “a truth problem.”

And here’s where things get ugly, Lana Del Rey-style.

There are 146 comments (to date) on Catfish. Of these, there are at least 16 in which the commenters feel free to give more than their two cents’ on whether or not Catfish is real, fake, exploitative, bullshit, what have you, all while admitting they have not actually seen the movie.

Several people complain that they don’t necessarily dislike the movie itself, but the dishonest trailer and marketing. Someone questions whether or not the filmmakers (who also appear in the movie) use their real names, because “what kinds of name is Joost?” There are even a couple of mildly anti-Semitic comments directed at Yaniv Schulman and his brother Ariel as well as the suspicious aroused by Yaniv’s nice teeth.

Several commenters offer proof of a hoax, but say that the evidence has now been “scrubbed” from the Internet. Someone else provides links as further proof, but these are now dead.

At this point, for me to weigh in on hoaxes, dishonest trailers, or manipulative marketing seems moot. Catfish has been talked about, bitched about, and dissected like a biology experiment. (Can you imagine if Inception purported to be a documentary?) It’s not just Internet blowhards, either; the filmmakers also have two lawsuits pending which, intriguingly enough, relate directly to Catfish‘s claim that it is a documentary.

I will offer this: Catfish, whether real or fake or a combination of both (like most films, particularly documentaries), is a genuinely unique experience, one which reveals some startling truths about people, the Internet, films, and yes, even documentaries. So if the success of a movie can be judged by its effect on people, Catfish is a resounding success.

Speaking of fake documentaries, the found footage franchise that continues to hold sway over audiences in the form of Paranormal Activity has found new directors (you guessed it): Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost. They directed the third installment and have also been hired for the fourth. Whether Catfish was real or not, the success of these filmmakers certainly is.

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