Jan 25, 2011 12:00AM

Catfish Review

"A film that is as freakishly suspenseful as it is emotionally charged."

Catfish is a film with a simple premise but a sizeable twist. In the interests of preserving its secret, this review will remain frustratingly ambiguous in its attempts to whet the reader's appetite for a film that is as freakishly suspenseful as it is emotionally charged.

At its most basic, Yaniv (Nev) Schulman and Ariel (Rel) Schulman are two brothers who share a studio with their best friend Henry Joost in New York City. Nev is a photographer; Rel and Henry are aspiring filmmakers. In 2008, Nev meets Megan. He meets her on Facebook. Megan sings, dances, rides horses and has a soft voice. Rel and Henry decide to document Nev and Megan's courtship. Suffice to say, the outcome is miles away from what anyone could have fathomed.

It is easy to label the unravelling series of bizarre events which follow as almost miraculous good luck, somewhat stumbled upon by two young filmmakers hungry for something unique. To brand it as such would be to ignore the sensitivity with which the content is treated and the techniques used, clearly calculated to maximise effect.

Real efforts have been made to keep this film immediately accessible and recognisable to our computer literate age. Nonchalant shots of live footage are interspersed with screen images of Facebook actions so commonly recognisable they have become part of our everyday social vocabulary. The camera's eerily close focus on a mouse drifting towards a blue button labelled 'Accept Friend Request' and the incessant close-up panning shots that meditate on Megan and Nev's messages effectively mimic the ways that most people unwittingly access social media: there is a real lingering over words, actions are made with deliberative emphasis, people are stalked. In other parts, overly pixelated imagery is used to lend an aesthetic consistency to the film.

As much as technique serves to brand Catfish's world as immediately identifiable, its dual function is the creation of anticipation and suspense. For as much as Catfish is a documentary, it is also a captivating story about two people, their meeting (online and offline), and the consequences. There is nothing more off-putting than a wobbly hand-held creeping up a stranger's driveway in the middle of a grainy night, especially when natural silences and pauses in the footage are drawn on to tease the audience's nerves. At another point, a highway drive is depicted using quick flashes of rapidly changing googlemaps grabs, effectively building tension through the strobe-like flickers.

As coldly digitized as this film sounds, its true focus is highly emotionally charged. What transpires could easily be treated as a distasteful and slightly freakish product of social relations carried to a new medium; instead it is treated with sensitivity and given the air and breadth to explain itself. The end result is a heartbreaking recognition of how a new digital social forum is used to fulfil the most basic human desires and needs, and how such desires can be concealed, manipulated, and, in some circumstances, made achingly clear.

Jacinta Mulders