Catfish Henry Joost Ariel Schulman (USA 2010) Janiv Schulman
Viewed Tyneside Cinema Newcastle; 19 Dec 2010; Ticket: £7.50
city slickers or reel seekers…
Catfish (C ) presents itself as being an exercise in actual film making. A documentary embedded in the process of uncovering a situation and shot as events and reactions to events that were filmed, unfold. It looked and felt more like a retro construct (you take an underwater camera on a doc shoot?) in which directors Joost and Schulman (JS) were able to bring coherence and a certain moral conviction to their material as part of a filmic act of containment.
Moral debate lies at the core of C as a project. The directors, JS and subject Niv, who is S’s brother, are anxious to present their film not as an exploitation flick of a sad woman in a sad situation, but rather as a commentary on the problematic nature of evaluating claims made to identity in contemporary web based personal communications. They also want to anticipate objections to the movie on the basis of exploitation of its naïve subject, Angela by claiming that Angela as the naïve subject was the better, in a psychological and moral sense, for having her web based fabrication exposed and that she would benefit from the recognition she gained for her paintings through their exposure in C.
In documentary film making there is the moral issue of process which of course often relates to the moral issues of content. At the core of any documentary film is the issue as to what is going on here? Dramas based on fiction don’t usually have the issue of process as problematic: what is happening is the realisation of a scripted doing by actors. The process of filming documentaries raises fundamental issues as to whether what the viewer experiences are scripted or unscripted doings; and the extent to which the film makers allow these layers and laminations of film to be visible. A documentary of course may be scripted in the sense that there is a coherent schedule of events the director plans to record: interviews and action. The nature of the interviews and actions as responses may be highly predictable as is often evident from docs. But predictability of content is different from content being scripted by the film maker. The use of scripted interview responses acted out as if spontaneous and faked footage presented as actual, breeches the tacit pact of trust between film maker and viewer, that each shares the same understanding as to what is happening. In docs where the filmed material is in some way faked or scripted but not transparent as such, the viewer misframes the material, and is contained in this misconstruing by the film maker(s). The viewer is placed in a situation where they may think one thing is happening, when in fact something entirely different is going on.
In documentary films there are often blurred lines in recorded interviews and action that make the question as to whether the index material breeches endemic trust, difficult to assess. This appraisal is made more problematic by biases and fabrications that can be perpetrated at the editing stage, in which mistakes, failures, anomalous statements, judgements and opinions contrary to the approved line, can all be cut from the film to present a homogenous ideologically succinct product that misrepresents the world that it claims to depict. Again where this type of presentation is systematically effected, the audience is contained: what is actually taking place is containment.
C claims to be a film process recorded sequentially by the filmmakers, in which they uncover a series of fabricated claims sourced from the pages of Facebook. The story starts with Niv receiving an attached painting that is claimed to be the work of a young child called Abby. The film follows up clues and leads, about the child and her family through detective work on the Web and Facebook until the story unravels as a series of false claims in relation to identity made by a middle aged woman called Angela. Angela is married to a man who has two severely disabled older sons from a previous relationship and she spends much of her time caring for them and yearning to escape.
The uncovering process which is the core of the film’s structure and its basis for making a moral claim upon its audience as a true record, looks on close analysis to be a retro-construct. A construct about which we are given no information as C is presented as being actual when, some parts are not. Documentaries used to label scenes that were filmed retrospectively to provide the viewer with an image of events that had taken place as: reconstruction of actual event. This allowed the audience to interpret what it saw correctly to trust the material in that they were not being contained by fabrications of the makers.
JS in making C seem to have followed the adage never to allow truth to ruin a great story. Or perhaps they opt for belief in a post modernist philosophical mantra that all reality is a construct and their only duty is to plurality of the construct. But I think that this understanding of truth as being many sided and of multiple perspective conveniently omits the situation of the viewer who is contained by the one perspective of the film.
JS in making C decided to present as a continuous process a whole series of what appear to be different inputs: rehearsed events, scripted events, re-enacted events and perhaps spontaneous actual events, with no way of discriminating between these different kinds of material. The film in effect collapses material of different ontological status and presents them as a seamless stream of actuality filming.
The area in which the film is vulnerable to questioning is the degree to which it documents a bunch of young media savvy city slickers manipulating simple unsophisticated people in sad situations for the sake of making their mark with a movie. The suspicion is that by adroitly mixing their material from different sources they were the better able to control readings made by the audience as to what was happening. Source material of different but undisclosed status together with control of the editing process, gave the film makers maximum leverage in the film to present themselves sympathetically and to minimise chances of their film being read as a piece of cynical opportunism. The film could be read sympathetically as a fable of the media age – which is the way most reviewers covered C – rather than as a cautionary take on city slick film making.