Communicating in the time of the internet

Communicating in the time of the internet

By  Uma Anya

“We lived on farms and we moved to cities, and in the future we’ll be living on the Internet!” The Social Network (2010)

Time is relentlessly forward looking, and the present is continuously changing. It is mystifying that we humans manage to ignore all this instability and go from day to day doing what we do. All the while deftly ignoring the certainty that one day we will no longer be a designated red dot moving along a GPS map embedded in the dashboard.

When the last baby-boomer dies there will be no one alive who will remember what life was like without instant access to some form of communication, information or entertainment. PI (pre-internet) will be a techno version of BC, a second Dark Ages, a historical period before we moved into cyberspace and reality morphed into HD pixel images.

We are like gods creating images in our likeness, so credible that these images engage us more than many of our fellow mortals. We like images glowing before us on portable screens.These images are so engaging that they even make us laugh out loud while we sit entranced in darkened rooms. Does this invoke Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” or “The Matrix”? The nature of reality is a slippery concept that has been fertile ground for many film-makers. Documentaries are supposedly about reality but, if that reality involves the internet, how does it affect the final film?

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Life in a Day

Director Kevin Macdonald and producer Ridley Scott decided to use YouTube as a video communication and display site, calling out to people across the world for digital footage submissions that documented life as they saw it on July 24, 2010. Eighty-thousand people from 192 nations uploaded 4,500 hours of footage – all about an ordinary day on Earth. This brilliant yet simple idea is a masterpiece of inclusiveness, not to mention an editing feat that boggles the mind.

“Life in a Day” begins before dawn with an image of a fat moon hanging in a black sky, elephants bathing in what appears to be a dark cave (a visual reference to Plato?), a short scene of a mother breastfeeding her newborn and folks waking up in different parts of the world. People laugh, cry, joke, eat, argue, love, fight and die throughout the day. Naturally, some sequences are more beautiful or more interesting than others. The viewer, however, can’t help but grasp the theme that we are all very different and yet really all the same: we are all humans on a beautiful planet living this ordinary day together in a pocket of time in something known as eternity. Awesome!

This poetic editing style is not a new idea. Predecessors are “Koyaanisqatsi” (1982), “Baraka” (1992) and “Samsara” (2011). Without the Internet and YouTube “Life in A Day” would not be possible. Yet while these artistic endeavors are worth watching and discussing, one wouldn’t want a steady diet of such poetic poignancy. The film tries too hard to be egalitarian and uplifting but still ends up being an interesting and innovative idea: a 3.5 star movie you heartily recommend to friends.

“We are like gods creating images in our likeness, so credible that these images engage us more than many of our fellow mortals.”

Catfish

Another story involving communication on the internet is the documentary “Catfish”, a perplexing romance that begins on Facebook and turns into a post-modern communication thriller that astonishes, vexes and elucidates us. Alex Pasternack, critiquing the film for the Motherboard website, wrote: “Catfish uses the word documentary the way Facebook uses the word friend.” There is storm of controversy over the ethics of the making of “Catfish” as well as the reliability of the story. The film is sold as a documentary but is it a reality thriller or a talented hoax? This is exactly the kind of publicity that drives tweets and spin-offs. “Catfish: The Movie” has spawned “Catfish: The TV Show”. Nev Schulman hosts Reality TV show about the pleasures and perils of online dating.

Deception has always been possible in any form of communication, however, it has become easier to do in the zone where Facebook and other social networks reside: cyberspace. Deception is at the heart of “Catfish” but the twist is that the film, purporting to be a documentary, may be a ruse on the audience. The film certainly had many filmmakers questioning who knew what and when. Morgan Spurlock called it “the best fake documentary ever.” In the film, twenty- something Nev is a New York City photographer who is buddies with two documentary filmmakers (one of whom is his brother, Ariel Schulman). These young, creative guys photograph and film each other constantly. They casually start making a documentary about Nev’s Facebook relationships when an eight-year-old girl, Abby, paints a small picture based on a photograph of a dancer Nev published in a national magazine. Abby is proud of her creative accomplishment and sends Nev the canvas as a present. They begin a relationship on Facebook, which eventually extends to friendships with her older sister and mother. Over months of chats, emails and phone calls a romance develops between Nev and Abby’s 19-year-old sister, Megan. Things begin to steam up and chatting gradually turns into sexting.

Nev grows suspicious about claims Megan makes about herself as a musician. She sends Nev a cut from a song she said she wrote and performed on Facebook. Nev checks out the song on YouTube and discovers the exact same cut being performed by someone else. It is quite evident that Megan did not Catfish 75 write the song. All this excited angst is documented moment by moment by the filmmakers, Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman.

After completing a film job in Chicago the trio decide to drive to Michigan and show up unannounced at Abby and Megan’s house in order to get to the bottom of things. The film-makers are after a True Romance Magazine exposé, wiring Nev with a tiny microphone and hidden cameras. Nev arrives at Megan’s front door holding a bouquet of flowers he picked by the roadside and with suspicion in his heart. Angela, the sisters’ mother, opens the door.

The film then shifts from a lightweight Facebook romance story into a reality thriller. The plotline becomes more interesting than these naive young men originally imagined. This poignant encounter with Angela, a middle-aged housewife, throws viewers into ambivalence about the film. Angela’s real life proves to be reason enough for creating alternate identities on Facebook. I found it excruciating to watch Angela’s lies unravel as Nev gently confronts her about the missing Megan.

I began to suspect the veracity of “Catfish” as pure cinematic verité during the segment where Nev interviews Angela’s husband Vince. He suddenly turns the story’s focus away from truth versus lies to the human need for stimulation and uncertainty in life. He tells an allegorical story about how difficult it is to ship live cod to Asia from America because the lack of activity for the cod in the tanks causes the fish to arrive flaccid and flavorless. Some fishermen then discovered that if they added catfish to the tanks the cod became active and assertive. The spunky catfish helped the cod to retain their vitality and flavor. Vince thinks that people need catfish-type individuals in their lives to keep them on their toes. He implies that Angela is such a person.

This thought-provoking interpretation of the identity forgery issue on Facebook feels suspiciously like a set up because it is an unlikely theory to be espoused by someone like Vince who appears far from philosophical. Where did the catfish story come from? I will avoid serious spoilers – viewers should wrestle with their own responses to “Catfish”.

My reading of the film is that Joost and the Shulman brothers stumbled into a far more complex story than they had initially expected. Most likely parts of the documentary were re-shot once Angela and her family entered the story. The film-makers, nevertheless, did maintain their complete integrity to the film’s timeline. “Catfish” raised controversy at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013. The question of who’s conning who made me wonder – are we, the anonymous viewers, also part of the deception equation? Upon further reflection I realized that is precisely why I liked the film. “Catfish” is a catfish!

 Uma Anya is an expat writer / photographer living in Indonesia who blogs about photography, writing, books, films, and stories from her life in Ubud, Bali.

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