Catfish: a film with a surprising and humbling twist

Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, “Catfish” (2010)

Call it a fake documentary, call it a feature film and call it exploitative but this film about a friendship that begins on Facebook, is augmented by Google, Google Earth, Youtube, satnav and cellphones, and ends up in a real place that not even the film-makers anticipated, emotionally as well as physically, is an intriguing investigation into the nature of authenticity, much of which it is thrown back into the film-makers’ faces and those of their audiences. The film divides into two rough halves: in the first half, it focusses on Nev Schulman, a photographer based in New York City who specialises in photographing professional dancers, who is contacted by a young girl called Abby requesting his permission to use one of his photos as a basis for a painting. When Abby posts the result to Nev, Nev is taken aback by the quality of the child’s work and a friendship conducted mostly through Facebook develops from there. As Nev is introduced to and friended by members of Abby’s family, in particular her half-sister Megan Faccio, his brother Ariel and friend Henry sense the Facebook friendships have a story to tell and begin to obsessively document Nev’s relationships with Abby’s family on film. Along the way though, something about the songs Megan posts to Nev via mpegs smells fishy and the trio quickly discovers she is posting other people’s songs as her own. Their senses alerted, the guys begin to discover other things about Abby, her mum Angela Wesselman and Megan that don’t make sense, and the men decide to visit the family.

The film’s second half is located mostly in Ishpeming (Michigan) where Abby and her family live and here Nev, Ariel and Henry discover the truth about Abby, Angela and their relatives, most of all Megan. At this point, the film leaves the realm of genre film – up to now, the film has gleefully included references to horror and suspense, including a drive from Chicago all the way to Michigan in the wee hours of the night to visit an abandoned farm-house, perhaps to provide a frisson to what the film-makers anticipated would be the climax of the film (maybe they’ll find illegal cocaine shipments? discover body parts left behind by a serial killer? stumble onto a secret alien-human DNA fusion experiment jointly funded by the Pentagon and the CIA?), as well as romantic comedy of the “You’ve Got Mail” sort. “Catfish” delves into deeper territory about identity and its fluidity, and how social networking technology gives people from different walks of life the opportunity to create and present fantasies about themselves and their lives as a way of coping with everyday reality. It transpires that (spoiler alert) everything attributed to Abby and Megan in the first half of the film is part of a fantasy life spun by Angela as her way of reconciling her need for a family life and security with the sacrifice of her dream to be a dancer and painter.

Although Nev and his pals find out fairly easily that Abby and Megan aren’t all they were cooked up to be, the fact remains, which Nev admits, that for several months he didn’t bother investigating their bona fides simply because it hadn’t occurred to him to do so, even though astute viewers of “Catfish” would have smelled something pretty strange when Angela starts posting pictures of some of her own paintings along with Abby’s pictures early on in the film. Even after the guys realise that Abby’s family may be lying to Nev, they don’t think about taking anything further until Henry suggests they actually go visit the family. At this point, the film changes dramatically: the film-makers’ obsession with Facebook and other social networking technologies fades and viewers are taken into more emotional and humbling if voyeuristic territory. This says a lot about the problems of social networking: in many aspects, particularly in the world of emotions and psychology, the technology can never really substitute for real life, no matter how real Facebook and other online friendships may seem to people and no matter how closer people, geographically separated, become. At the same time, such dangers are advantageous as Angela discovers for herself: she uses the technology to get a foot-hold in a larger network represented by people like Nev Schulman but, being shy and perhaps afraid that she’s not as “sophisticated” as the folks in New York, she weaves a fantasy life to hook Schulman into supporting her artistic efforts. In this way, she controls the process by which she moves into a milieu and network that she has always yearned to enter on her own terms and at her own pace. The irony is, Angela is perhaps more sophisticated in her use of Facebook and other Internet-based interactive networks to get what she needs and the end credits suggest she manages to achieve at least some if not all her dreams.

Yes, you don’t know if your “friends” are one-to-one cyber-equivalents of real-life people (as opposed to paedophiles impersonating children or men impersonating women) or if 10, 100 or even 1,000 of these friends might be avatars of one person. If social networks and virtual reality websites pose a danger, “Catfish” suggests that the danger is people being too ready to believe that those they meet online are who they claim to be when everybody “knows” that the Internet offers people limitless opportunities to reinvent themselves. For all their hipness and familiarity with modern technology (and we certainly see the Schulmans and Henry messing with their laptops, cellphones and filming equipment a lot), these guys fall victim all too readily to their own emotions and fears. At film’s end, Nev is looking shell-shocked from what he has discovered about Angela and maybe about himself and his own naivety; it’s too easy though to say he should have invested less emotion and feeling into his Facebook romance with Megan. As individuals and as a society, we depend so much on technology to fulfill our immediate physical needs that we have come to see it as solving all our social, political and economic problems and it’s now an extension of our psychological being. As “Catfish” gives viewers no information about Nev’s history of romance prior to meeting Megan on Facebook, we have no way of knowing if Nev has experienced many ups and downs in his love life and if he should just widen his real-life social network, meet more actual girls and get some advice on how to recognise if someone is genuinely interested in him or leading him on. At least he conducts himself with grace and never accuses Angela directly when he confronts her with her lies, so he’s not completely at sea socially.

It would have been more ethical if Nev had simply called Angela’s bluff on Facebook and not gone to see her at home. Again, this points up a limitation about social networking and other interactive technologies such as email and even the old-fashioned facsimile machine: that when you have to confront people about their lies or other “bad” behaviour, it’s better to do it face-to-face than impersonally, even by phone. Also if Nev had told Angela over the phone that he knew she was lying and left the matter at that, she might never have had the breakthrough she yearned for and Nev and the others might not have learned something about themselves and the limitations of social networking. No-one would have been changed by his/her experiences and Angela would probably go hunting through Facebook again to latch onto another hipster photographer who thinks he’s more worldly-wise than he actually is. Who’s to say if the unethical route is not the correct route to follow in situations such as these?

There are several issues raised in “Catfish” which the film, due to its limited scope and resources, isn’t able to deal with in much depth at all. One issue is how do people like Angela reconcile conflicting personal desires and ambitions, and the needs of others dependent on them, in striving for personal fulfilment. The issue affects men and women alike but possibly it’s more pressing for women who desire also to be mothers but find mothering brings with it demands on their time and energy. Related to this is the problem of Angela’s social and economic milieu: her home town of Ishpeming perhaps couldn’t be more removed culturally and financially from that of Nev, Ariel and Henry, and Angela may have perceived the difference as a considerable barrier to gaining a foot-hold in the art world. Ishpeming is an economically depressed town: when Nev and his pals arrive there, they see the main streets are deserted and the large building in the centre of town which supposedly is an art gallery is actually vacant and has been so for four years. If there is any State or Federal government assistance to Ishpeming and to individual families like Angela’s family which includes twin adult step-sons with mental disabilities, the film-makers make no mention of it.

The question of the film’s genre as documentary or not raises the issue of authenticity, not just with the film itself but also its makers and the people who appear in “Catfish”. The events look real enough but the film-makers have imposed a particular linear narrative on them that shapes them and influences viewers to see them in a certain way. Don’t rule out the possibility that the events have been edited to conform to this narrative. The narrative gives the events a coherence that viewers can understand. Elements of romantic comedy, horror and suspense thriller have been worked deliberately into the film to tease the audience and hold their attention for what is basically a fairly trite subject: the development and evolution of a relationship through the medium of technology. Ariel Schulman and Joost’s motives for making the film change as they follow Nev’s romance with Megan and this change makes their motives seem even more suspect. At one point in the film, Nev complains about being bullied and manipulated into continuing with the filming even when he wants out so there is a related issue of how authentic the film can be when people are being bullied and events are being shaped to meet a vague agenda. Interestingly, Angela herself manipulates the film-makers and continues to lie even as they force her into admitting her past fibs about Megan. The fact that this manipulation is a two-way street in the second half of “Catfish”, with the sense that the film-makers are losing some control over the “story” as a result, makes this part of the film very interesting. As this manipulation is going on, viewers will find themselves complicit as passive voyeurs; we may not like what Nev, Ariel and Henry are doing to Angela but all the same, we want to know why Angela seems such a compulsive liar that she carries on even after the trio expose her lies and discover she’s deceived her husband too.

The film is likeable and Angela’s “dilemma” can be very moving. Nev is an appealing guy and the approach the film-makers adopted of confronting Angela with her lies in a gentle way that saved face and didn’t embarrass everyone should be lauded. Viewers will likely feel sorry for Angela’s husband who incidentally gives the film its title and perhaps is the most genuine person here. (We don’t learn much about his background and what he does outside the home, not even if he works two or three low-paying jobs, which seems likely in a depressed place like Ishpeming.) Authenticity, encountered through “Catfish”, is a huge multi-faceted monster indeed.