x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Buzzworthy documentary caught in the web

The hot-ticket Sundance documentary Catfish is truly a film for the Facebook age, though one of dubious reality.

At Sundance, you don't talk about gossip - the word connotes something too commercial. So the Sundance term is buzz, meaning the word-of-mouth communication about films and filmmakers that brings as much or more attention than conventional media. This year, one of the films with buzz is Catfish. The evidence was clear at a recent screening at the Prospector Square Hotel, where anyone headed inside was pleaded with for an extra ticket. The same pleading, often by filmgoers in expensive winter clothes, continued inside.

Catfish is nothing if not a generational movie. The documentary's medium is as much the social networking world of the internet (Facebook, in particular) as it is cinema. Directed by the newcomers Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost and produced by the documentary maker Andrew Jarecki (Capturing the Friedmans), the film follows Nev Schulman, Ariel's attractive photographer brother, as he "meets" young Abby, who's a talented painter, online. Abby turns out to have a sister, Megan Faccio, who's a gifted dancer and singer, and looks like a model. Their web relationship begins to take a romantic turn, all online, much of which is filmed on Nev's end without anyone on the other end knowing.

Yet when Nev and the two directors journey to Michigan to meet Megan and her family, it all seems to be a hoax. Megan, who's nowhere to be found, is said to be far away, in treatment for alcoholism. Abby is a child who can barely draw a picture. The real artist and mastermind of it all is her mother, Angela, who lives in the provincial town with her daughter, her husband and two seriously disabled boys.

Tearfully admitting the hoax to a disappointed Nev, Angela then tells him that the beautiful Megan does not exist. Then, he wonders, who is the person in all those pictures? She turned out to be a model who had put a huge number of pictures of herself and her friends on Facebook. The tile of the film comes in a roundabout way from the fishing industry of a century ago, as Angela's husband explains to Nev and the filmmakers. Catfish were placed in vats of codfish shipped from Alaska to China in order to keep the cod active on the long journey so their flesh would be firm on arrival. Angela's internet identity scam, they're told, was a manoeuvre to keep the young men on their toes. It ended up working.

(Bear in mind that if the title of Catfish seems far-fetched, at least it's explained in the film. It's been almost 20 years, but Quentin Tarantino has never explained the equally improbable title of his violent caper film, Reservoir Dogs, which premiered at Sundance in 1991.) So Catfish, while lurching back and forth through the internet, shows us the web's potential for true adventure, even for romance, plus its perils. Is Angela a virtual version of something comparable to the recent Balloon Boy hoax, in which a couple in Colorado, determined to get themselves on a television reality show, triggered a manhunt after telling police the invented story that their young son had been lifted away on a runaway kite?

And what is the responsibility of the filmmakers, who filmed Angela and her family without telling them, on their visit to Michigan? Industry insiders at the screening were sceptical. The allegedly loose ends of Catfish told what seemed to be too compelling a story. Was Catfish really a documentary, or rather an adroitly fashioned adventure in the realm of social networking? While a few sceptics reserved judgement, the audience loved it. And Nev Schulman assured them that he's recovering from the experience thanks to hundreds of new friends on Facebook.

Catfish is the highest-profile new media do-it-yourself venture in a trend that is redefining independent film. Slick and stylish, it's ready for the audience, and the young audience is ready for just such a story. Yet if Catfish is concocted from the latest interactive technology, Bass Ackwards is made of sticks and stones, or it just looks that way. In the section Next, which seeks to take Sundance back to its no-budget origins, Bass Ackwards tells the story of a perennial Sundance character, the ne'er-do-well loser. Linas Philips wrote, directed and stars in the story of frustrated love. Bass Ackwards is also the quintessential independent genre film, a road odyssey that takes its protagonist, conveniently named Linas Philips, across the US in a 1976 Volkswagen bus. (Some might say that the VW's survival on the journey is the only piece of fiction in this autobiographical script.)

Asked after the screening what the requirements were for inclusion in Next, the Sundance section for films made for less than $500,000 (Dh1.84 million), Philips responded that he was never asked to prove what it cost. Sundance never demanded an audit. "Just look at the film, and you can tell," he said with a grin.