In 2007, a photographer in New York City, Nev Schulman, was surprised to receive a parcel in the post containing a painting. It was a painting of a picture of his that had been published in The New York Sun some weeks earlier, and the artist was apparently only eight years old. Intrigued, Schulman began corresponding with Abby, the artist, online under her mother Angela's supervision. His brother Ariel and friend Henry, amateur film-makers, smell a potential good story here and begin filming Nev's interactions with Abby's family by phone and computer. Nev also comes into contact with Abby's family members via Facebook, particularly her 19-year-old sister Megan, whom he starts 'Internet dating'. Since the family live many hundreds of miles away in Michigan, the chances of meeting them soon do not appear to be likely.
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).