Documentaries seem unreal

The makers of the documentary Catfish have faced questions over how much of it is in fact staged and whether it could be a hoax.

A scene from the documentary Catfish.
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The Social Network might have been the most famous film about Facebook this year, but it's a new documentary created with small digital camcorders that really highlights the huge impact the site is having on the way we interact in the 21st century. And, as 2010 draws to a close, Catfish is also threatening to become the year's most controversial film, too.

First, a warning to anyone planning to watch it. The story of Catfish is so labyrinthine that it's almost impossible not to reveal its plot when discussing its remarkable gestation. In effect, the making of the film is its story. And what a remarkably telling comment on our internet-obsessed times it is too.

Nev Schulman is a 24-year-old New York photographer who receives a painting of one of his shots, at the office he shares with his friend Henry Joost and older brother Rel. It flatters Nev, and he gets in touch with Abby, the eight-year-old girl who drew it, to thank her. For some reason, Joost and Rel - both filmmakers - decide to film their exchanges.

Soon, they strike up a friendship on Facebook, Abby sending him more and more of her impressively mature work. Nev becomes friends with her parents (online), and crucially, her rather attractive 19-year-old sister, Megan. They flirt on the web and on the phone. Nev is smitten.

But not for long. When the trio decide to go to Abby and Megan's hometown, they discover to their "horror" that Megan doesn't exist, and that Nev has been cooing sweet-nothings to a 39-year-old housewife called Angela Wesselman. Abby is her daughter... but she's no more or less talented than the average eight-year-old messing around with a paintbrush. Angela had painted the images - and Nev has been well and truly hoaxed.

Except, has he? It's surely rather too neat that the technologically savvy trio had decided to film everything - but didn't ever think of Googling Abby's name as she began to win prizes. It also stretches the limits of credulity that Nev couldn't tell that "Megan" and Angela (to whom he also spoke on the phone) were the same person.

The filmmakers constantly bat back these questions with wide-eyed innocence, refusing to have any truck with allegations that their project is far too clever for its own good: a hoax documentary about a hoax. Similarly they won't admit the truth has been bent to fit a coherent, entertaining plot - even though Wesselman has admitted herself that right from the start she thought it would make a good film. At the very least, it's difficult to believe that the trio didn't in some way "allow" themselves to be duped because the cameras were running and it would make a good story.

Tellingly, though, in an interview with the Guardian newspaper, Rel Schulman said "the word 'documentary' doesn't give you the same guarantee of truthfulness that it once did". And even if Catfish proves to be 100 per cent true, it's a sign of our more suspicious times that we're disinclined to believe it. Just a month before Catfish opened in America, Joaquin Phoenix's "documentary" I'm Still Here was released - in which the Oscar-nominated actor supposedly retired from filmmaking and embarked on a career as a bearded hip-hop guru. Just a week later, the director Casey Affleck was forced to admit that the whole thing had been a "performance" and the events had been deliberately staged. He said he'd never intended to "hoax" anyone - but in that case, why say beforehand that this was "a record of a very private internal implosion"?

The bending of truths is just as prevalent in mainstream documentary-making. Michael Moore isn't out to hoax anyone, but his drive to fashion entertaining films rather than accurately portray society and politics continually clouds his work. In Sicko, his investigation into the American healthcare system, he holds up the UK's National Health Service as a utopian dream - when everyone knows that's simply not the case. Even Super Size Me, in which Morgan Spurlock ate only McDonald's for a month with hilarious and appalling consequences, has been dogged by controversy about what he actually consumed.

So perhaps Schulman is right in implying that the word documentary no longer has the same meaning it once did. After all, the graffiti artist Banksy's film of the street artist Thierry Guetta, Exit Through the Gift Shop, has been longlisted for a 2011 Oscar in the documentary category - despite widespread doubts about its authenticity. The truth is, once the camera is switched on, reality is always altered. Nothing is ever recorded without an element of storytelling - it's up to the viewer to decide whether there's a truth hidden within that which they want to believe. In the case of Catfish case, there is. Just.