Tuesday, 4 January 2011

If she looks this good on Facebook...

A handsome New Yorker’s online flirtation with this girl set off a bizarre chain of events captured in the year’s most talked-about documentary

Jeff Dawson

Published: 28 November 2010, Sunday Times

As I switch on my digital recorder, Henry Joost whips out his own and punches it on with almost perfect synchronicity. “Do you mind if we record you?” he asks. “As long as you don’t make me look stupid,” I say. I regret it instantly. This is the most unoriginal thing you can utter to someone about to tape a conversation. According to their friends, Joost and his directing partner, Rel Schulman, have a propensity to record stuff that borders on the obsessive. Today it’s audio, but usually it’s film. They may leave the house sans keys, but never without cameras. “We film things for fun. We just film things,” Joost shrugs. “We fool around.”

Joost, a fresh-faced New Yorker of 28, who shoots promotional videos, looks barely out of his teens. Next to him sits Nev Schulman, Rel’s younger brother — 26, darkly handsome, a tad mannered, with the lithe physique of a ballet dancer: a lame one currently, grumbling about a crick in his back from the flight over and sending down to the hotel lobby for some Nurofen. Whether Nev dances or not, I never find out, but, circuitously, it is his interest in ballet — as a photographer of it — that has landed him and Joost here today. (Rel is stuck in New York.)

In late 2007, Nev received a painting in the post from a dance-crazy eight-year-old named Abby, who had made a watercolour copy of one of his prints — “Basically, ‘I’m learning how to paint, what do you think of my artwork?’” was her pitch, he says. The trio could not have comprehended where it might lead. The result is Catfish, the most talked-about documentary of recent months.With Joost and Rel directing, and Nev the film’s star, it wowed Sundance and has been a hit on the festival circuit. It opened in America in September, taking more than $3m at the box office — not bad on a production budget of “I think, like fourteen-hundred bucks”, mulls Joost.

She was into things I don’t have access to, like horseback riding, ice climbing, adventurous stuff. And the huge trump card that she was a virgin

What’s it about? To reveal too much is to ruin the experience of watching it. Let’s just say that Catfish is the flip side of The Social Network — not so much what happens when Facebook goes wrong as what happens when Facebook gets weird.

While the film’s events were unspooling, as they do still, Joost and the Schulmans shared an office in downtown Manhattan. “Rel had always wanted to make a movie about Nev, because Nev has this magnetic attraction to strange things happening,” Joost explains. So it would seem. The film begins innocently, as an internet friendship develops between Nev and Abby, their conversations monitored by her genial mum, Angela, from the family home in Michigan. “All it really was was the potential for a cute, short film that would end with Nev and Abby meeting in real life,” Joost says. But enter Megan, Abby’s winsome 19-year-old sister... For Nev, it’s love at first byte.

“What had me captivated was that, unlike the girls in New York City, she was a polar opposite: very outdoorsy, into things I don’t have access to, like horseback riding, ice climbing, cool, adventurous stuff,” he says. “Then there’s the huge trump card that she was a virgin. I mean, what guy doesn’t dream of having some beautiful virgin in love with him?” The attraction is mutual, their e-chats supplemented by phone cooing, suggestive texts and come-hither photographs. Nev and Megan yearn to meet. They yearn to get naked.

Meanwhile, with the child prodigy Abby even splitting her art-competition winnings with Nev, he has no reason to suspect anything is awry. “It seemed, if they were scamming me, they were terrible at it,” he says. Eventually, though, things don’t quite stack up, and Catfish suddenly turns amateur detective story, as the three amigos zip through the backwoods of the Midwest to uncover the truth. It gets bizarre, even fairly creepy — Blair Witch meets Deliverance. You do question the boys’ sanity. “I just didn’t imagine how any of this potentially would lead to a negative outcome,” Nev says. “It never occurred to us that there was a huge, elaborate, dangerous thing going on.”

Catfish’s central theme is explored, quite coincidentally, in another new release, Easier with Practice. Although shot as a drama, it is based on real events, as recounted in the American author Davy Rothbart’s autobiographical short story What Are You Wearing?, which first appeared in American GQ. It tells of Davy’s long-running relationship with an unseen woman — in this case, a phone-sex hook-up with the mellifluous Nicole, their compulsive telephonic affair blissfully devoid of the courtship politics that blight Davy’s flesh-and-blood couplings.

“There are titillating aspects of it, I know, but it’s really about people trying to connect in the 21st century and finding that, by concealing parts of their identity, they are able to reveal themselves sometimes more fully to each other,” says Rothbart — who is also the creator of Found magazine, an ingenious collection of “the best lost, tossed and forgotten items from around the world”, such as discarded letters, windscreen flyers and shop-door Post-its, which tell fragments of a story, but never the whole. “Catfish and Easier with Practice are very similar in terms of speaking to you about the power of fantasy,” he muses. “It’s easy, when you know only a part of someone, to fill in the blanks. It’s amazing how vivid and potent our imaginations can be, especially when it comes to romantic fantasy.”

Ah, l’amour... Inevitably, the infatuated Davy desires something more profound than a cordless quickie or a spot of aural. He wants tenderness. He wants to “cuddle”. And, as in Catfish, he seeks a face-to-face with his siren.

Easier with Practice has received the restrictive NC-17 rating, even though it contains no on-screen nudity or violence. The censors have taken umbrage at some dialogue that, admittedly, would have curled Alexander Graham Bell’s moustache, but it can’t be construed as controversial.

The makers of Catfish, by contrast, have found themselves facing something of a backlash, with suggestions that their film is not all it claims — compounded by the assertion of Morgan Spurlock (the maker of Super Size Me) that it is “the best fake documentary I’ve ever seen”.

I had this exciting, entertaining soap opera unfolding every day on my computer screen, and I didn’t want to change the channel

As there are nearly as many “mockumentaries” these days as bona-fide ones, you can understand the confusion. It has not been helped by the presence in the Catfish credits of the producers Andrew Jarecki and Marc Smerling, makers of Capturing the Friedmans, a celebrated documentary about a family’s dark secrets of paedophilia — a film that later became mired in controversy when allegations were made about its journalistic integrity. Joost points out, however, that the producers were not involved in Catfish’s creative process.

So, cards on the table. Catfish: is it a hoax or what? “No, because none of the movie is fictionalised or staged or shot out of sequence. It is all real, the way it happened. The only thing we went back and shot later is the computer-screen close-ups,” Joost says.

“We were very strict about not making stuff up. All of the emails in the film are real emails. All of the chats are the real chats they had.” You can allege that, as the film proceeds, Nev hams up his part, having fun at his subjects’ expense, possibly even exploiting them (though they did all sign releases). And how about the little piece of music, midway through, that Megan plays on the piano, a Philip Glass refrain better known as the theme from The Truman Show? Surely a little hint that reality might be being manipulated? Were they really that gullible?

It’s the first time anyone’s brought this up, Nev and Joost say — an extraordinary admission, but one that fits with their apparent naivety. “There were plenty of things along the way that stood out, that were red flags. If I had wanted to focus on them, I’m sure I could have uncovered the truth sooner,” Nev reflects. “But I was so engaged and captivated by the fantasy. I had this exciting, entertaining soap opera unfolding every day on my computer screen, and I didn’t want to change the channel.” In the end, it is Catfish’s sheer “stranger than fiction” quality that is the most compelling evidence of its veracity.

The suggestion that any documentary is “faux” is in itself a red herring, they argue. Are, say, Borat, or the recent Joaquin Phoenix documentary, I’m Still Here, any less valid as works of journalism simply because the reporter is wearing a red nose? True objectivity is a myth, Joost adds. “You have 200 to 250 hours of footage, and just by making it into 90 minutes, you’re cutting almost everything out, shaping the story. The film does not equal the experience we had, but it’s an accurate distillation of it. And that’s kind of all you can shoot for.”

Catfish might stand, in years to come, as a film for our age, the epitome of our “sofa­lising” existence. But it also highlights something that’s always gone on, from Henry VIII being duped by a portrait of Anne of Cleves to the silver surfers of Ambridge — that the timeless art of seduction involves no small measure of masquerade.

Davy Rothbart still uses Facebook, but has given up on phone sex. “IRL is a lot awesomer. I’ve become a big fan,” he says. “You ever do IRL? It’s like when you hang out with people... In Real Life.”  

Easier with Practice opens on Friday, Catfish on December 17

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