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In late 2007, filmmakers Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost sensed a story unfolding as they began to film the life of Ariel's brother, Nev. They had no idea that their project would lead to the most exhilarating and unsettling months of their lives. A reality thriller that is a shocking product of our times, Catfish is a riveting story of love, deception and grace within a labyrinth of online intrigue.
The slipperiness of truth and lies on the Internet gets played out in unexpected ways in the documentary Catfish. When Nev Schulman receives a painting based on a photograph of his from an 8-year-old girl named Abby in Michigan, he doesn't realize this is going to lead to a long-distance romance with Abby's older sister Megan… and that this romance, conducted over the phone and the Internet, will lead to something far more troubling. It would be unfair to reveal more details of Catfish, as the process of discovery is one of its pleasures--but even if you do know the sequence of events, the movie's ultimate reward is not the revelation of secrets but the surprising and very human interactions of the movie's last third. While there is a thriller aspect to the movie--and the suspense at points is indeed nail biting--the revelation isn't the bang that Hollywood movies lead you to expect. Instead, Catfish turns sad, unsettling, and sure to inspire arguments about motivations and human nature. --Bret Fetzer
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As someone who herself was the victim of numerous catfishes throughout my undergraduate career as a result of being too trusting and too naive on online/internet dating, I take sincere offense that Angela felt no remorse in lying ruthlessly and maliciously. Nev will probably have a hard time trusting future partners because of Angela's misdeeds, and I know this because I myself have experienced this result. Throughout college, I had several long-distance, penpal relationships with men I never met in person and with whom I never spoke to on the phone. I never thought anything was fishy because I was too young and inexperienced to know that you cannot be in a real relationship with someone you've never met in person and whose real name you do not know. Though friends had warned me to be careful in terms of the correspondences, I was hardheaded and felt I knew what I was doing--don't we all at 20--and thought I'd be able to navigate everything on my own. Lo and behold, one guy whom I felt was "the one" turned out to be a psycho stalker from high school who sought revenge on me, another guy deleted his account before I could hire a private investigator, and another guy stopped talking to me when I turned 22, because he felt any girl over 21 was "too old." I guess being lonely and stressed out from my pre-med curriculum led me to be so gullible and naive, but these guys had no reason to exploit my innocence by lying to my face and refusing to meet me in person, just like Nev didn't deserve what happened to him either. We were both complete victims in our situations.
Had I watched this movie the minute I graduated from high school, I would've known that there were psychotic people out there who create fake identities to lure and mislead their innocent victims, and maybe would've taken advantage of real-world dating sooner. This movie was a total eye-opener for me, and it made me realize how lucky I am that one of the guys (or girls?) with whom I corresponded didn't kill me in my sleep or rob me or anything. I really hope other young women (and men!) learn from my mistake and this movie and avoid talking to strangers on Facebook and/or other social media sites. There are some real psychos out there and I think it really helps impressionable young people to know that they're much better served by forcing themselves to be social to find a significant other instead of taking the easy road and trying to find romance online (or, in my case, exclusively online). Especially if a person is sheltered, like I was, it really, really is necessary for colleges and high schools to show this film so people are aware of the nasty underbelly of the Internet. I wouldn't wish being catfished on my worst enemy.
Again, fantastic film.
Whilst working on a project in Colorado, the trio start to find holes in the story presented to them. Megan, who sings and plays guitar and piano, sends Nev some songs she's recorded, but he finds that they are recordings of songs from YouTube. Googling reveals no mention of Abby's artistic skills in local media. Nev becomes concerned over being scammed, and they decide to detour to Michigan on the way home to learn the truth.
Catfish is an interesting film that was released last year after proving a storm at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. It then triggered a significant wave of controversy, though we'll come to that in a moment. It's easy to see why the film has been praised: it's a zeitgeist-capturing movie about people who forge relationships online where the details presented by the parties involved may be exaggerated or indeed fabricated altogether. The final act, exposing what's really going on, subverts audience expectations about the motivations of those involved. As a piece of film-making, Catfish is entertaining, intriguing and builds tension towards the moment of revelation (though it has to be said that this is a quiet, non-flashy film; the trailer suggesting it's a 'thriller' is totally inaccurate).
The film also asks an important question of the audience, one that may or may not have been intended by the film-makers. The film is about people passing themselves and a situation off as something that is rather different to what is presented. So, it is perfectly logical for the viewer to ask, "Okay, but what about you guys? Is this really what happened? Are you manipulating us?" If the film-makers had done this deliberately and perhaps avoided answering the question in promotion, it would be a fascinating and metatextual statement on presentation, perception and motivation in a world where it's all too easy to manipulate these things online for an intended purpose or effect. Unfortunately, the film-makers have spent a fair amount of time saying that everything in the film is 100% the truth and nothing has been changed or manipulated.
This claim is immediately challenged by a scene in which Nev and his compatriots arrive at the address supplied by Megan, intending to surprise her, only to find the house abandoned and uninhabited. Nev opens the postbox (rather dubiously; interfering with the mail in the USA is a federal offence) and finds it stuffed full of the letters and packages he's sent to Megan during the course of their 'relationship'. However, this is clearly a fabricated scene: the post has 'return to sender' already stamped on it, indicating that the post was delivered, not picked up and sent back to Nev in New York. He then appears to have taken the post back to the address and set the scene up to demonstrate to the viewer the deception of Megan providing a false address.
This in turn leads to the viewer questioning the truthfulness of the entire enterprise. Many tens of thousands of words have been dedicated to questioning every aspect of the film by multiple articles, blogs and even news items on US television, so I'll avoid into delving too far into that, except to note that there seems to have been some very clever manipulation of scenes and chronology going on to present the narrative as it unfolds to us.
The film, taken at face-value, is intriguing and raises interesting questions about Internet-based relationships. However, the fact that aspects of it are clearly manipulated and possibly exploitative (one of the participants has since passed away, something that has indeed been verified, but which makes the situation even murkier) leaves a bad taste in the mouth. But at the same time, the fact that after watching the film the viewer can then go online and read up on all the controversy and draw their own conclusions itself adds another level to the experience: layers of deceit, spin, presentation and impersonation. Talking about the film and seeing how different people interpret it is arguably more interesting than the movie itself.
Catfish (score not really applicable) is a bizarre and thought-provoking film about modern media, manipulation and social networking. Whether you believe all of it, none of it or something between, it definitely raises some very interesting questions. The film is available now on DVD (UK, USA) and Blu-Ray (UK, USA).