Handsome twentysomething Nev is a photographer in New York who gets his photo of two dancers printed in a local newspaper. Some time later, he receives a precocious painting of his photograph from an 8-year-old small-town Michigan girl named Abby. Thanks to Facebook, e-mail, texts, and the occasional phone call, he soon becomes friendly not only with Abby, but also her mom Angela, her sister Megan, and a variety of their friends and relations. In fact, he becomes a bit more than friendly with the fetching blonde Megan, building a budding long-distance relationship via digital media with a young woman he's never met. But is she really who she appears to be?
As Catfish (Universal DVD and Blu-ray) unspools, the question becomes, "Is anybody?" Nev's brother Ariel Schulman and their collaborator Henry Joost keep their cameras rolling as Nev becomes besotted with Abby's family and becomes increasingly invested in his virtual bond with Megan. But certain things about Abby's story just don't add up, and as the surprisingly gripping narrative unfolds, the brothers and Joost find themselves on the way to Michigan, unannounced, to meet Abby, Megan, and the rest. What they find provides a sterling lesson in the pitfalls and ambiguities of our contemporary social-media-dependent world. But Catfish itself also proves an object lesson in trusting what you learn about people via screens. Presented as a documentary, it rings so true in some spots, and so conveniently if implausibly true in others, that many critics, filmmakers, and viewers have accused the Schulmans and Joost of faking all or parts of their film. They deny it, and really, in a way it kind of doesn't matter—the same lessons apply. Even more so than The Social Network, Catfish is a telling film for our particular moment in time.
Another recent documentary release centers on a small group of bewildered individuals wondering whom to trust or what to believe. In the case of The Tillman Story (Sony DVD and Blu-ray), the stakes are higher and have ramifications for us all. Director Amir Bar-Levi tells the story of Pat Tillman, the pro football player who threw over his NFL contract to join the Army Rangers after Sept. 11 and died in Afghanistan in 2004. More importantly, however, Bar-Levi tells the story of what happened after Tillman's death, as the Army and the U.S. government went forward with all the pageantry and pomp of celebrating a hero's death in combat, when, in fact, Tillman had died due to friendly fire, a fact not disclosed to anyone outside the chain of command—including Tillman's family—for weeks.
No one who sits through The Tillman Story will ever doubt that Tillman was an admirable man with heroic qualities, nor will they doubt where he got them. Tillman's mother, Dannie, his father, and his brothers refused to buy the Army's lies or the government's acceptance of them and launched a crusade to have Tillman's death and the subsequent cover-up fully investigated and those culpable held responsible. In life, Tillman refused to play the hero role, and his family downplays any such merit for themselves in trying to do right by his memory. But The Tillman Story, even-handed and cool-headed as it is, does not spare the Army or the government (right on up to the office of the president) for any of its ample missteps, falsehoods, or bad faith. Essential viewing.
There are times when the documentary Last Train Home (Zeitgeist DVD) seems unreal, as if it were an attempt at neo-realist drama cast with amateur actors. Middle-aged Chinese couple Changhua and Suqin studiously don't look at the camera while they have awkward discussions about their conflicted, difficult lives working in factories in distant cities while their children are raised by their grandmother back in their rural village. When Suqin matter-of-factly acknowledges that they "don't even know what to say" to their children when they do come home, or when a face-off between rebellious teenage daughter Qin and undermined paternal figure Changhua explodes into violence, however, the film can't be mistaken for anything but the bleakest real life. As Qin tries to find her way in the new China of fashion and nightclubs, Changhua and Suqin face alienation from their offspring, their own aging, and the shifting currents of a rapidly modernizing economy.
But the intimate family story that director Lixin Fan captures is all but outstripped by Last Train Home's portrait of contemporary China itself. Fan's footage of the annual Chinese New Year trip home for tens of millions of factory workers such as Changhua and Suqin captures teeming thousands jammed against barricades outside a train station and hundreds cramming themselves and their bags into every inch of sweaty, overcrowded passenger cars for what is often only the first leg of a journey of hundreds of miles. Such scenes underline the scale on which the country's manufacturing base works, and the lengths that its people are willing to go to make their own personal version of the Chinese dream come true, and are truly humbling—as is a random factory worker's scoff about the 40-inch-waist jeans he gets paid to sew for fat, lazy Americans.