There was a time when drama focused on the acts of the rich and legendary. From Sophocles to Shakespeare, plays were about kings and heroes, gods and generals. When Henrik Ibsen introduced realism in the 19th century, critics predicted that no one would spend money to see ordinary people talking about such ordinary subjects as middle class marriages and household budgets. But the critics were wrong. Audiences embraced these plays with characters very much like themselves, facing problems very much like their own.
We are seeing a similar shift in entertainment today, with the proliferation of webcams, weblogs, social networks, and reality TV. I don’t predict an end to scripted movies by any means, but I do see a growing interest in documentaries that chronicle what real people are doing. In fact, documentaries are the fastest growing film genre today. Close to 9,000 were submitted to Sundance for consideration last year alone.
Another reason for the growing popularity of documentaries is the recent advance in digital film technology, making it possible for virtually anyone to be a filmmaker. Leaving behind the graininess of video tape recorders, the new digital cameras produce images with the crisp clarity of film, at a fraction of the cost. Documentarians no longer have to worry about the cost of purchasing and developing 70mm film, or of renting expensive cameras worth tens of thousands of dollars. For a couple thousand bucks, anyone can own a good quality digital movie camera, and for a few hundred dollars more, can store hundreds of hours of footage. As a result, people have the luxury of keeping the cameras rolling and editing the stories later.
One trouble with real documentary work, however, is that the filmmakers have no control over the plot. They begin with an idea, but not a script. They’re more like the hiker out for a walk than the adventurer out to scale Mt. Everest. They know the general area they plan to explore, but they don’t know where specific trails will take them, until they go there. Often the story makes an unexpected turn, and they have to choose whether to pursue the original idea or detour down the new path.
Sometimes documentarians get extremely lucky, as did Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni when they filmed “The Story of the Weeping Camel” (2003) — how could they have anticipated that a rare white colt would be born while they were filming? The result was magical. Other times, documentarians end up creating the story; Woodstock would have been just one of many music festivals in 1969, hardly remembered at all, if not for the award winning documentary made of the event (and filmed in part by a young NYU film student named Martin Scorsese). Fewer than 1% of those 9,000 documentaries submitted to Sundance last year were accepted. “Catfish” was one of them. In fact, it was all the buzz, and for good reason. The story is engaging, the main character good-looking and likable, and the suspense well-developed. The filmmakers also had the good fortune to stumble onto a story they could not have predicted when they began. And what a story!
The film starts simply enough. Shortly after photographer Yaniv Schulman has a dance photo printed in The New York Times, he receives a fan letter from a talented young artist, 8-year-old Abby, who sends him a remarkable painting of his photograph, followed by several additional paintings. Thus begins Yaniv’s online friendship with Abby, her mother Angela, and her beautiful 19-year-old sister Megan. As Yaniv becomes more and more involved with Megan and her circle of Facebook friends, his brother Ariel and his friend Henry Joost, budding filmmakers, start filming. After several months, Yaniv begins to fall in love with the girl he knows only through texting, emails, and phone calls, and the filmmakers decide it’s time for a road trip. The resulting film is fascinating, funny, charming — and chilling.
This film could not have been made 20 years ago, or even ten years ago. In many ways it is both a celebration and a condemnation of modern communications technology. GoogleEarth, Google search, youtube, g-chat, Facebook, iTunes, cyberstalking, texting, sexting, and even identity theft — all of these play a role in the telling of this story. It’s a cautionary tale, as old as “Little Red Riding Hood” and as contemporary as the TV show “CSI”; as emotionally simple as a love story, but as psychologically complex as the movie “Three Faces of Eve” (1957).
And that’s all I’m going to say about “Catfish,” because I want you to enjoy the filmmakers’ unexpected path as much as I did. Shocking yet strangely moving, “Catfish” will reel you in.