We watched Catfish tonight, the controversial "documentary" that was a Sundance hit. The controversy rests over whether or not the documentary was staged. The plot line: a young photographer / videographer, his brother and a friend film the budding online romance between the young man and the 19-year old daughter of a family he has come to know online through Facebook. Whether or not the filmed was stagged, there are deeper moral issues to consider.
As it turns out, the 19-year daughter doesn't exist. She is the fabrication of the 40-something mother in the family. The mom is the one flirting online with the photographer from New York. This is a middle America family from Wisconsin with deep problems. Clearly, the mom is in emotional turmoil and distress. She has created a virtual world in which to cope and is caught.
The filmmakers insist they never knew they were caught up in a deception until the web of lies put forth by the mom came unraveled. Like film critic Kyle Buchanan, I don't buy that. It seems entirely possible that they knew exactly what they were on to and that they decided to film it. The only other option was that they were all naive and gullible in the extreme.
What really bothers me about this film is how the Wisconsin family is treated once the deception is fully uncovered. Any person of moral character would have put down the camera and recognized the brokenness of the mom would not be served by continuing. Instead, the film makers kept their cameras rolling - sometimes with hidden cameras and recording devices. In doing so, they harmed the mom, her 8-year old daughter, twin disabled boys (one of whom died shortly after the film was made), and the husband of the family.
The filmmakers appear to have exploited the family for their own financial gain. I can only imagine the long-term harm caused to the family, especially the 8-year old girl who will grow up tarred by the stigma of this "documentary" on her family. Whether or not the family in the end gave permission of any kind to go forward with the project is irrelevant. How many people can fully understand the impact the notoriety of such a film might bring?
You might be asking, why did you watch the film in the first place? I had no idea what it was about (except that it was a Sundance hit that had something to do with social media...I actually mistakenly thought it was a horror movie of some sort). By the time the film was over, I simply felt sad that three young men from New York would exploit a very troubled family in what seemed to me to be a very malicious way. Rewarding this film would be to reward human behavior that is contemptible.