Catfish is fascinating in spite of itself. Forget the debates concerning whether it is all real or scripted - although the fervent opinions on that matter reveal how much stock certain viewers place in having confirmed what they experience is "real," that it could "actually happen," and that something scripted or doctored loses value and power because of its fallacy. The filmmakers of Catfish claim everything in their "documentary" is true, that none of it is scripted and all of the revelations spontaneous and genuine. My concern isn't so much with that claim (suspect as it is), but what Catfish reveals about the ontology of representation - the thin (or non-existent line) between capturing truth and manufacturing it.
October Country, a documentary released earlier in 2010, chronicles the generational struggle of a northern-New York family over the course of a year. Damaged by abuse, teen pregnancy, and poverty, it's a devastating piece on a family held back by themselves - imprisoned through family history repeating itself. Nevertheless, it's also a very exploitive film, lingering on a daughter as she cries after learning of her father's sexual abuse when she was a child, sharing painful moments with the mother whose broken up over a runaway foster child, and capitalizing on other moments to provide emotional cues for the viewer. Yet because it's a more straightforward documentary, these moments are accepted as pure emotion and catharsis - but the viewer who craves these elements also infringes upon the subject, vicariously experiencing their pain to attain some end of his own. To tie this up, I'm not sure Catfish does anything differently, even if it is altered to fit a narrative arc.
This is not to suggest Catfish's intent is to unearth these representational issues - it clearly wants to be taken as objective fact. However, no documentary can be accepted as such, since scenes (just as in a narrative film) are arranged, cut and presented in a particular way, meant to develop characters and scenarios to the preference of the filmmaker. This is an inescapable fact for all films so, in essence, nothing put on screen is ever "real" or "true," since all of it is mediated and filtered through a particular, subjective vision. Perhaps Catfish has been more attacked for the seeming intentions of the filmmakers: present themselves as hip, NY based filmmakers who are conned by a hillbilly from Michigan. Definitely, their attempts fail, since protagonist Nev Schulman comes off like an ego-centric douchebag, equipped with self-pity and a shit-eating grin, and Angela Wesselman, the con artist who faked the existence of almost two dozen Facebook people, is ultimately meant to be a sympathetic figure (pitiable, is more like it), even having two retarded sons who she has to feed, shave, and change diapers for. One of the sons beats himself mercilessly, punching and smacking himself in the face. Rest assured, the filmmakers present close-ups for your viewing pleasure. The film's title comes from a closing line by Angela's husband, who explains the catfish as a means of inspiration for the cod, to stay alert in order to avoid death. The power dynamic is made explicit in the form of an indirect question - who is conning who or, more appropriately, by constructing a narrative, do the filmmakers reverse the betrayal, "speaking for" Angela through their active (re)construction of reality?
Catfish is less interesting as an expose on the shifting technological and social tools which facilitate deception, disconnect and subterfuge. On these grounds, it is rather obvious. However, the crux of its fascination lies in the intricacy of its representational dilemma, the irony of fiction as fact, since the certainty of mediated truth always exists on unstable ground. Utilizing hand-held cameras for a zeitgeist aesthetic works better here than other recent attempts, crafting a (pseudo?) doc that, although questionable in its ethical and moral considerations on the part of the filmmakers, is never less than fascinating because of its blurred lines and double-minded motives.