Sundance fever: What ‘Catfish’ says about our 24/7 video age

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One of the most fascinating films up at Sundance this week is ‘Catfish,’ a documentary that has wowed audiences and critics alike with its portrait of Nev Schulman, a bright-eyed young New York photographer who becomes involved, via Facebook, with an adorable 8-year-old art prodigy named Abby and the rest of her endlessly complicated family. Nothing is quite as it seems as the film takes about a dozen unexpected twists and turns along the way to its startling conclusion. Made by two first-time directors and produced by ‘Capturing the Friedmans’ filmmaker Andrew Jarecki, ‘Catfish’ has generated a ton of heat, not just because it’s so fresh and entertaining, but because it offers such an intriguing commentary on the thorny identity issues being generated by Facebook and other social media.

A number of distributors are avidly circling the film, led by indy maverick Bob Berney, who would love to have the film for his new Apparition label, believing the ‘perils of life on Facebook’ angle would give the film a marketing approach that could broaden its appeal beyond the usual audience of older-demo documentary fans. I’m hoping the film sells soon because I’ve already been eagerly touting it to friends as a must-see movie experience.


But even though most of the early takes on the film -- including this nice appreciation by my colleague Tim Swanson -- have focused on how well the film captures, as Tim put it, the nature of friendship and courtship in the Facebook age, I think the movie represents a breakthrough of another fashion. It offers the best example yet of how we’re entering a new documentary age in which films can blossom out of mundane real-life experiences, not from carefully thought out narratives and thematic subjects.

When you are watching ‘Catfish,’ you often feel as if you are watching a home movie, in part because so much of the first half of the film is simply a chronicle of Nev’s everyday life as a freelance photographer. He talks to the camera in much the same informal way that we’d talk to the camera if a friend was filming us at a party -- no doubt because the man behind the camera (and one of the film’s directors) is his brother, Ariel Schulman. It turns out that the ‘Catfish’ directing duo, who, like Nev, are in their mid-20s, are basically amateur filmmakers, specializing in shooting bar mitzvahs, birthday parties and dance recitals.

But like so many aspiring filmmakers of their generation, they shoot video all day long, documenting every aspect of their life, thanks to the ease and economy of today’s tiny video cameras. So when Nev’s casual Facebook friendship with Abby grows more complicated, especially when he develops a cyber crush on her exotic older sister-musician Megan -- and it then turns out that Megan may not be exactly who she seems -- the filmmakers don’t have to figure out how to reassemble the back story. They have it all on videotape, saved in their files, ready to be edited back into the movie now that the movie suddenly has an involving story line.

It makes for a very different style of filmmaking, one that we will surely be seeing more of in a reality TV era when everyone’s life is potential fodder for a film. It’s what makes ‘Catfish’ more than just a provocative story, but potentially an enormously influential one as well.