Sundance Docs: ‘Gift Shop’ and ‘Catfish’

There are two films, which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, that are currently in possible contention for awards season and are challenging what we classify as “documentary.” They could not be more diametrically different in approach in subject matter. “Catfish” is a whisper of a film demonstrating the power of the internet on our social interactions
and interpersonal relationships. And “Exit Through the Gift Shop” is a hyperkenetic examination of the underground movement know as
street art and all of its mischief-making inhabitants.

What is interesting is that if one is deemed a hoax, it leaves audiences
frustrated and fuming, while if the other is a dupe on the audience, it’s celebrated for its cerebral poke in the eye. Every documentary is, to some extent, a partial work of fiction. Hours of footage is amassed and edited to effectively drive its narrative and engage the viewer. But that is life. When someone asks us about our day, we edit out our menial daily routines and get to the good stuff. We highlight the more dramatic events, and perhaps embellish them a bit for the sake of the story.

And in this modern era, when we readily accept “reality” to be crowds of attractive, camera-aware citizens competing on an island, looking for a mate,
or “smooshing” at the Jersey Shore, all compressed to an advertising-ready half-hour time slot, does it really even matter?

I won’t venture to judge either on their veracity, but merely their entertainment value. And to this degree, both hold up, perhaps with “Gift Shop” performing slightly more effectively because of its eclectic ensemble.

“Catfish” follows three young filmmaking friends who document an online relationship that blossoms, only to have it take a twist once they decide to delve further into the identity on the other side of the computer screen. Nev Schulman is a Manhattan photographer who shares office space with his brother Ariel and Henry Joost, who keep the cameras rolling when one of Nev’s admirers begins frequently communicating with him via Facebook.
Abby Pierce is an 8-year-old painting prodigy who sends Nev canvas after canvas of her interpretations of his works.

Through the online social hub, Nev befriends Abby’s entire family, in
particular, Abby’s 19-year-old sister, Megan. After things between
Nev and Megan begin to escalate, the filmmakers discover some
discrepancies that lead them down a reality rabbit hole.

The less you know going in to “Catfish,” the better. But Nev is such an
engaging host to the proceedings, it makes you want to join him for the journey. Sure, there are conveniences that are a tad tough to swallow (these guys seem a bit too technically savvy to be so easily led astray by online strangers), but the film’s journey leads viewers to some unexpected places that are, by turns, funny, frustrating and poignant.

“Gift Shop” is equally as twisty and unexpected, but carries with it a playful tone in spirit to its subject matter. Chances are good that you have never heard of the names Seizer, Neck Face, Sweet Toof, Cyclops, Ron English,
Dotmasters, Swoon, Borf, Buffmonster or Space Invader.

What sounds like a lineup for “WWE Raw” is actually a list of graffiti, or
“street,” artists who use various buildings and city structures as their canvas under the cloak of night. Thierry Guetta, a French immigrant who owns a New York boho clothing store got sucked into the scene and began filming its “stars” (one of which was Shepard Fairey, who would reach worldwide fame with his Obama “Hope” poster).

During Guetta’s years of filming, a young talent emerges in London by the name of Banksy. His street celebrity caught the attention of names like Christina Agulera, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, who attended his exhibits and purchased his works. At some point, Thierry gets too caught up in the rush of this particular artistic process, and merely stores the countless hours of footage in a warehouse, never bothering to watch a minute of it. Banksy,
frustrated that he’s allowed Thierry into his world with his camera and nothing to show for it, essentially “hijacks” the film, and decides to turn the camera on the filmmaker himself.

“Gift Shop” raises the often-asked question of just what is art, but what is far more interesting is its cast of guerilla artists, the world they inhabit and the length at which they go for their art to be seen and/or shared. So why are audience so split if the two films were found to be fake? My guess is that one deals with the quest for love, and we all want to feel that “characters” in a romance are ones in which we can fully invest. The other deals with
artistic underdogs, and if they can once again “stick it to the man” by pranking the masses in a cinematic form, it is yet another victory.

But both film are victorious in keeping viewers entertained, truth be damned.

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