In the midst of a film project tracing an online romance between his brother and a Facebook artist, Rel Schulmann and friend Henry Joost start to question her true identity and open a Pandoras box of Facebook fakery...
Catfish is a word-of-mouth movie you’re supposed to keep quiet about, but that’s just the start of its slippery contradictions. The credits come loaded with gravitas (Capturing The Friedmans director Andrew Jarecki is on producing duties), and yet Morgan Spurlock loudly insists it’s “the best fake documentary I’ve ever seen”.
That Jarecki connection is uncanny. There really hasn’t been a documentary as blatantly opportunist since Friedmans, a film originally intended as a jolly portrait of the New York clown scene before Jarecki uncovered a chronicle of family child abuse. Catfish, likewise, starts as an innocent side-project, with its filmmakers capturing the cute but odd relationship between trendy Manhattan photographer Nev Schulman and eight year-old child prodigy Abby. She posts him paintings. They chat online. Through Facebook, he gets to know her mum, her family, then her older sister Megan, an arty, eager blonde who becomes an online infatuation. But there’s something not quite right about the phone calls. And, as the Facebook cover begins to slip, Nev, brother Rel and Henry Joost set off to find out who — or what — is hiding behind the virtual mask.
For its first 50 minutes, Catfish does a terrifically twitchy job of seizing on digital-age paranoia. Anyone with an online profile will connect with Nev’s situation — it’s everyone’s FaceSpace nightmare.
As the mystery unfolds through YouTube, WAVs and JPGs, events play out like a lo-fi techno thriller with the extra vicarious buzz of witnessing every revelation emerge ‘live’ to Nev and the audience, as it happens. It’s direct, nervy, skilfully structured stuff. The final third, however, sees a switch into confessional and character study, and as for the great unmasking... Well, the filmmakers say they couldn’t believe their luck. But can you believe them?
Catfish is being sold not as a documentary, but as a “reality thriller”, and that marketing jargon allows some wiggle room for any half-truths. Is this movie about the power of lies a great big porky pie itself? How, for instance, could a smart, urban 24-year-old not smell something fishy for eight months? That’s been the jump-off point for all manner of detail-sifting hoax conspiracies (current favourite theory: they shot the ending first, and for real, then reconstructed the build-up).
As for the directors, they’ve personally assured us it’s “100 per cent the real deal”. If that is the case, it’s still troubling – as filmmakers, they appear to seriously overstep ethical lines. Does this ruin the experience? Not really. The debate about Catfish’s veracity feels like part of Catfish’s puzzle. What’s not in doubt is that the film nails the social networking zeitgeist — and its predatory urban myths — better than any movie in memory.
Love it, hate it, reject it or embrace it, you’ll definitely want to talk about it. See you in the forums. You’ll have no trouble finding us. We’ll be the one in the blonde wig, answering to the name of Shirley.