Sunday, 21 November 2010

LEEDS FILM FEST REVIEW: Catfish



Catfish still has me in a quandary – was it a documentary? If so, was it authentic and filmed as things happened, or did they script some of it and re-film shots? Did these events happen or have they just staged them as if they did? In that case is it a docu-drama, and it’s all made up for story?

Whatever the case, this was one of the best films I have seen at LIFF this year. Constantly intriguing and then at times veering between creepy, uneasy, tragic and funny this film had a lot to offer, and a lot to say as well on the way we operate our lives today in a world motored by the internet. Whether the events are true or not they have explored an area of web life that is so often merely judged as being paedophiles posing as young boys to attract the attention of underage girls for grooming purposes. There have been countless horror stories in the press about this, and the upshot of that has been a real wariness amongst parents, and a crackdown in schools with comprehensive lessons and talks about the dangers of the internet and the importance of knowing who you’re talking to. But paedophilia while present isn’t the only force in these ‘relationships’ – people can pretend to be someone else for entirely benign and harmless reasons – boredom, one – or it can be the result of a deeper psychological issue, which is what manifests here in Catfish.

Young photographer Nev strikes up a relationship online with 8 year old Abby after she sends him a drawing in the post of one of his photos. Immediately you think you know where this is going, but as Nev starts to have contact with other members of Abby’s family – her mother Angela, her brother Alex and her sister Megan – this interest wanes and Nev begins to concentrate on other things: Megan. He is attracted by her photos on Facebook, and slowly they begin flirting. Meanwhile while all this is going on, Nev’s brother and flatmate have decided to start filming and documenting Nev’s relations with the family out of curiosity. In personal confessions to the camera Nev starts trying to find reasons why he and Megan might be really good for one another – it’s very candid stuff. But then things start to become suspicious.

Megan claims to be a singer, and starts posting recordings of songs onto Facebook for Nev. But after doing some – just basic – investigating, he realises that they are recordings taken from sites such as YouTube that she is claiming to be her own. Outraged, but in an incredulous fascinated way, Nev and his filmmakers start wondering about how to tackle this. By this point Nev and Megan speak on the phone and text regularly, and Nev begins to wonder if all of his outpourings of desire have been aimed at a 50 year old man – this is the first conclusion he jumps to.

They decide the only way to get to the bottom of this is to do some proper detective work, and travel all the way to Michigan to see the family in person. At this stage you’re so invested in the film and wanting to know what the hell is going on, you’re practically sat on the edge of your seat as they pull up to Megan’s house in the dark to peer through the windows. Catfish in some media has been described as a ‘thriller’ – well this is as close as you’re going to get in these few scenes where they discover the house Megan claims to live in is empty.

The next day they visit the main house belonging to Angela and her husband and where Abby lives, and discover that none of the people living there look like their pictures on Facebook. Only Abby it seems is real and consistent, but only to a point – she’s not a talented painter at all, just a normal fun-loving eight year old girl who likes her dolls. It all begins to become apparent that the culprit in all of this is Angela. Nev is torn over whether to confront her or not and get the truth – there’s no sign of Megan, and his continued presence at the house is becoming uncomfortable. So he tells her they need to sit down and have a talk about what’s happening – and then she bursts into tears and reveals to him the truth: nearly all of the people Nev has been speaking to over the past few months have been Angela – including Megan. He discovers her numerous fake Facebook accounts, how she used photographs of family friends and photos off the internet to put faces to these people, how she has a mobile phone for herself and one for ‘Megan’… it all sounds creepy as hell, yet Angela is a tragic figure: in reality she lives with her husband, Abby and two severely disabled sons and what started as a lie – she painted the photograph – has spiralled into a whole other life, filled with different projections of Angela as different personalities, and an escape from her normal life into a fictionalised one no-one else is aware of and one Nev has been fully duped by. The grim reality of Angela’s life makes you realise how this could have happened – and was she to know Nev would turn up at her door one day?

It’s all very sad, and a sobering climax to what was an adventure for the three young men. It’s not a paedophile or a psychopath posing as a young woman – it’s a middle aged mother trapped in her own life, wishing to be all of these people she has created. It’s only when Nev asks Angela to do the voice of Megan – then things become slightly unbearable to watch and even Nev and his crew take their cue to leave. He doesn’t question her about the ‘phone sex’ they had – I think that’s better left forgotten!

It’s only after the film has finished that you start to think about the questions I posed in the first paragraph. What actually happened here? Is Angela real? Did she really not question why they were filming her as soon as they arrived at the house? There’s quite a good breakdown on the real/fake debate here, but the filmmakers themselves stress everything is real. The thing which makes me slightly support the latter is the fact that the ending is so different. My belief is that these events actually happened, but the filming was done at different times and edited in a way to make it look like real-time. They would have had to have cleared with Angela before they filmed her and got her consent to use her real name and expose her in the film – it’s just madness otherwise.

All of this doesn’t detract away from Catfish being an engrossing and involving experience. What will come of this who knows, and what you get out of it is up to how much you buy into it. But it’s definitely one to watch as it’s a worthy example of a new generation of films about a web-obsessed society and online connections – expect upcoming features Chatroom and Trust to have more to say, but with more melodrama on show.

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