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SUNDANCEdaily | Controversial Doc "Catfish" Divides Sundance

Photo of Bryce J. Renninger By Bryce J. Renninger | feelingsoblahg.blogspot.com January 31, 2010 at 12:49AM

This week's biggest noise came not from a film in competition. The festival's Spotlight section premiered the new documentary "Catfish." Over the week since its premiere, though, many critics and audience members doubted the film's truth claims. Few can deny that the film was entertaining, engaging, and at times shocking. Some thought the film handled a sticky subject with care and intelligence; others found the film deceitful and manipulative. Conversations about the film after screenings brought out deep emotions from those most passionate for the film medium. Various people brought up moments of the film where they felt the filmmakers were trying to dupe. "Catfish" follows Yev Schulman, a photographer with a brilliant smile, as he delves into an online relationship with a family he met after the youngest daughter sent Schulman a painting of one of his dance photographs. The film is directed by Yev's brother Ariel and Ariel's filmmaking colleague Henry Joost. The film chronicles the three men's trip to meet the family in their small Michigan town after the crew suspects the family is not everything they said they were.
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This week's biggest noise came not from a film in competition. The festival's Spotlight section premiered the new documentary "Catfish." Over the week since its premiere, though, many critics and audience members doubted the film's truth claims. Few can deny that the film was entertaining, engaging, and at times shocking. Some thought the film handled a sticky subject with care and intelligence; others found the film deceitful and manipulative. Conversations about the film after screenings brought out deep emotions from those most passionate for the film medium. Various people brought up moments of the film where they felt the filmmakers were trying to dupe. "Catfish" follows Yev Schulman, a photographer with a brilliant smile, as he delves into an online relationship with a family he met after the youngest daughter sent Schulman a painting of one of his dance photographs. The film is directed by Yev's brother Ariel and Ariel's filmmaking colleague Henry Joost. The film chronicles the three men's trip to meet the family in their small Michigan town after the crew suspects the family is not everything they said they were.

Karina Longworth on Voice Film defends the film as "the ultimate YouTube film," saying, "You could remove the mystery quotient altogether and Catfish would remain the rare ultra-low-budget personal hybrid documentary with an extraordinary visual logic, and an even more extraordinary sense of compassion for its subjects. Even--especially--when its subjects take a turn for the superweird." She muses on the controversies of truth, "If it's so simple to convincingly fake a life online, how do we know that any of this movie is really real? Is Joost's Q&A claim that he and Schulman "always film" Nev just "because we find him cinematic" a plausible explanation for how they managed to get so much of his relationships on camera before any of them had any inkling that the family in Michigan was not totally on the level? If we take Schulman's story at absolute face value, aren't we just repeating Nev's own good-hearted gullibility? It's probably counterproductive to worry about which possibility is closer to the truth, being that Catfish takes the very mutability of truth as its primary subject."

The L.A. Times' Steve Zeitchik responds to the controversy, "It's preposterous, based on everything one sees in the film, to believe anything here was staged or faked. But after watching a movie that so persuasively exposes how few things in the modern world are as they appear to be, it's hard to blame someone for letting their paranoia and conspiracy theories get the better of them."

At Movieline, Kyle Buchanan questions the filmmakers' claims of ignorance of their subjects' true motives in article titled "Does Sundance Sensation Catfish Have a Truth Problem?" In it, he says, "They’re smart tech-heads who tote iPhones, brandish expensive handheld cameras, show off their American Apparel underwear, and have hundreds of friends on Facebook. Though Nev supposedly falls for Megan, it’s telling that he doesn’t really talk to her in his own voice; instead, the messages we see him send to her feel like snickered-over bait composed by him, his brother, and Joost. Of course, the movie’s first hour couldn’t consist simply of three guys coming up with ways to taunt a lonely wackadoo who’s come into their orbit, so the filmmakers go overboard shooting each other’s claims of surprised, open-hearted innocence."

In his early review of "Catfish" on indieWIRE, Eric Kohn does not question the film's veracity, saying "Needless to say, the movie takes the form of a knowingly obtrusive meta-narrative, in which we see the directors and their subject on camera discussing the nature of their project. Nevertheless, given the apparent authenticity of each onscreen development, such conversations help solidify the central themes coursing through each scene." However, at The Wrap, he's published an interview with the guys behind the film after their integrity became the talk of the town. Pushed to discuss the claims that the film is greatly fabricated, Joost says, "It was unbelievable when it was happening to us. But it did happen; it's all totally true. The only thing we re-created were the close-ups on the computer screen. None of the scenes were staged. People are responding to how the story is so streamlined like a narrative film. We actually considered having talking heads. Ultimately, we decided we had the footage to back up this straight narrative." Kohn asks them if they'll show all the footage they shot if they're so confident. They said they would. Let's see if Mr. Buchanan takes them up on their offer.

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