johnlink ranks CATFISH (2010)

So I just watched this self-proclaimed documentary last night. It left me with a bunch of questions, but it also made an impact. I would say that, as a documentary, it did its job (if it is indeed truly a documentary). The advertising campaign says not to give anything away. So I won’t. Don’t make the jump if you haven’t seen it. But this is certainly worth hunting down in order to form your own opinions. The question isn’t ‘are these real people?’ because they are real people. The question is ‘How much of this is staged, and how much of it is strategically edited?’ SPOILERS BELOW

I watched CATFISH (2010) on 9.21.11. It was my first viewing of the film. Not posting the trailer because it is a misleading piece of crap.

Again, SPOILERS are coming from the top. So here we go…

I remember a big long discussion on documentaries in one of my film classes. The simple question being ‘What is a documentary and what is not a documentary?’ We watched a film called THE THIN BLUE LINE a film which argues in the defense of a man who was wrongly convicted. The film, in part, uses reenactment to make its point. The film seemed on the up-and-up and the point was made that it used factual evidence to tell a story, though it certainly picks and chooses its components to create the story the filmmakers wanted to tell. I asked “How much reenactment is allowed then?” Noone had a real good answer, or at least there was no definitive answer. I then tried to argue (knowing I was absolutely wrong mind you) that Oliver Stone’s JFK, by the definition we had just created, could be considered, loosely, a documentary. My point wasn’t that JFK was a documentary, but rather, that we can’t just instinctively take anything which purports to be truth as such.

Now, CATFISH has no actors reenacting anything. The questions here, instead, are: How much of this is staged? How much is pre-planned before shooting? Are these first takes? Does the editing make it seem like there is more going on than there actually is?

I read a decent article here at VeryAware which makes some good points as well as a few flawed arguments. Some good points… there are a few coincidences from the filmmakers’ contemporaneous blog posts which belie a little more knowledge about plot points than seems to be depicted in the film. They also make a good point that EVERYTHING gets on camera. We don’t miss any major plot turns over the course of a doc being filmed across a 9 month span. If so, then they are the luckiest film makers ever.

On the other hand, according to the article, the film tries to argue that Angela’s reaction when being called out is not genuine. I think it is completely reasonable for some people, especially someone so mentally fragile, to be meek when confronted (and, in fact, the filmmakers would probably WANT a bigger show). Also, the writer of the article makes the point that computer screen images were acknowledged as recreations, then uses those same computer screen images from the film to make his point that the timing of the film doesn’t work. Can’t have it both ways.

For more reading, here is a better article articulating why it is probably a hoax.

But all that is less important than the film itself. It certainly feels real at moments, and forced at other moments. The big twist at the end (well it happens in the middle really) did nothing for me, because I called it in the first two minutes of the film. This isn’t because I’m smart, but because I recently watched THE NIGHT LISTENER  and it has a very similar plot. The entire opening conversation just did not FEEL authentic; plus the fact that everyone was artistic, but all their art was similar. It felt like one person pulling all of this off.

Something weird happened to me with this movie. Because I was sure this wasn’t real, I started thinking we were going to get some psycho killer twist in the third act. The scene at the farm had my heart beating, and another scene where the three guys were in the car talking had me sure that the husband was going to pop up from the hatchback and kill the guy in the back. The actual events of the film have much more emotional impact then that, but I am still torn as to whether or not any of it is genuine.

At the very least, the film is manipulated to make this a more suspenseful film. We already have the acknowledged fact that the computer screens were altered. I suspect that the guys smelled this being a ruse from the beginning and decided to film a documentary wherein they ‘stumbled’ upon the truth. If so, this is probably one of the most gross examples of exploitation in the history of cinema.

The theme confronts the lack of trustworthiness of the internet which feeds into the narrative that this is probably a fake. But even so, it tells a compelling tale about how little we really know about the strangers we meet in cyberspace. That’s not a new theme, by any means, but it lands with an impact because of the way this story is told.

And ultimately, that is all that really matters. These filmmakers had a point, and they wanted to get it across. If they used faux documentary means to do so, good for them. If it is all real and we are just too cynical, then good for them as well (and too bad for us). What matters is that the empathy and sympathy it evokes are real. A documentary sets out to give you the viewpoint of its filmmakers, to convince you of something. And whatever its techniques, CATFISH succeeds on that level.


This is, without a doubt, the hardest movie to score. I am 99% sure this is not real, so I should be rating it as a narrative, fictional film. But the filmmakers want to insist it is a documentary, and they want to be judged as a documentary. So that’s what I’m going to do here.




~ by johnlink00 on September 22, 2011.

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