That the authenticity of Catfish is in question is both the film’s greatest strength and its biggest weakness. Directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost have repeatedly claimed that their documentary isn’t a hoax, and while I’d like to believe them, I admit that I have my doubts; some of it comes off as a little too dramatic, almost as if the situation were intentionally manufactured for the sake of telling a cautionary tale of internet romance. That being said, the definition and purpose of a true documentary is open for debate. Some believe it should objectively present life as it is, the camera meant to provoke or surprise an unassuming subject, the audience meant to participate as a fly on the wall. Others believe it should express an opinion and support its position with facts and figures. Catfish seems to do a little bit of both, confusing matters even further.
Still, there’s no denying that it’s a gripping piece of work – mysterious, at times suspenseful, at times amusing, and in the end, a curiously touching examination of human behavior and the power of art. If the film is real, if the people on camera are not actors but actual documentary subjects, then it may someday be regarded as one of the best examples of early twenty-first century Cinéma vérité.
The film follows New York photographer Nev Schulman, Ariel’s brother, who in 2008 received a painting of one of his photos from eight-year-old Michigan native Abby Pierce. Flattered by her interest in his work, he adds her as a friend on Facebook. This quickly expands to include most of her family, including her mother, Angela, and her older half-sister, Megan, the latter two he begins corresponding with over the phone. He has an especially good rapport with Megan, who’s incredibly attractive and has dozens of pictures on her Facebook account. She’s an artist herself – a singer and a songwriter. She has also just purchased a farm and is raising horses. Nev is smitten, and in due time, the two start a long-distance relationship. They text each other constantly, progressing naturally from chaste flirtation to bold innuendo. She eventually posts a few of her songs on Facebook for him to listen to, and he tells her they’re all very good.
But then Nev discovers that all of the same songs appear on YouTube. One sounds exactly the same as Megan’s version. She tells him that she was merely covering the songs, but it’s obvious she isn’t telling the truth. And what about Abby’s paintings? Angela tells him that they’re being sold all over the state for various amounts. She also tells him that Abby has just acquired access to a vacant building, which will be converted to a gallery to display her work. A few phone calls make it clear that this is simply not the case. Why are they lying to Nev? How could he have been so gullible? After documenting a dance festival in Colorado, Nev, Ariel, and Henry decide to travel to Michigan and confront Megan and Angela.
And this is where I will stop describing the sequence of events. I will say that it leads to an unexpectedly emotional conclusion. The goal isn’t necessarily to shock, although certain audiences may respond to it in that manner; the real goal is to awaken within the audience a sense of empathy, to show us why certain people are the way they are, even if we may not understand. And here again I question the film’s authenticity. Isn’t it a little too convenient that such a message should be sent at a time when millions upon millions of people – myself included – are frequent Facebook users? I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I feel that something subversive is at work here. It’s almost as if the filmmakers wanted everything to go the way it actually does go. No, I don’t have any proof of this. It’s just my gut reaction.
That doesn’t change the fact that I was actively engaged with the material. Even the title got me hooked (no pun intended). The tagline warns, “Don’t let anyone tell you what it is,” and while this may seem pretty stern, it also ignites a fascinating air of anticipation. What exactly does the title refer to? An interview near the end of the film puts it into perspective, and it affected me in two distinct ways: (1) It allowed me to see where certain people were coming from, even though I wholeheartedly disagreed with the methods employed; (2) it stirred within me such feelings of pity that I was tempted to overlook a certain someone’s serious lack of judgment. I was tempted, but I ultimately didn’t cave in. If that makes me a bad guy, keep in mind that the lies were perpetuated even after Nev and his team arrived in Michigan. If you can’t come clean even after the person you lied to has you in a corner, I tend to doubt there will ever be a point at which enough is enough.