I discovered the documentary film Catfish in my local library as I browsed new films before the big blizzard hit Chicago this week. I had absolutely no idea what the film was about or how much controversy had swirled around it until I had seen it and then began my own Internet search.

220px-Catfish_film (1) Catfish is a 2010 American film that involves a young New York City photographer, Nev Schulman, being filmed by his brother and friend as he builds a romantic relationship with a girl on Facebook. The story begins when Abby Pierce, an eight-year-old artist in rural Michigan, sends Nev a painting of one of Nev’s photographs. They become Facebook friends in a network that broadens to include Abby's whole family, including her mother, Angela; Angela's husband; and Abby's attractive older half-sister Megan, a songwriter. Ariel and Henry then begin to film Nev as he pursues what he believes to be a “real” long-distance relationship with the beautiful Megan. This relationship is conducted entirely over the Internet and by phone calls. Megan and Nev discuss meeting in person but never make specific plans to do so. Nev grows suspicious but remains interested. Ariel urges his brother to continue the relationship for the sake of their documentary film. The two brothers and their friend eventually travel to Michigan to make an impromptu appearance at the Pierces' house and confront Megan. Surprise, surprise. They discover that the person behind all these Facebook posts is really Angela, who is a housewife caring for two disabled stepsons in addition to her eight-year-old daughter Abby. Although Angela's husband Vince really does exist, the real-life Megan has no contact with the family and is not the person who talked to Nev on the phone. The trio then learns that Abby is not a child prodigy, but really cares very little for painting or drawing. Angela, the forty-year-old mother, is the real artist behind the paintings. Angela also used fake photographs for herself, for Vince and for Megan. Thus Megan is a made up character used to draw Nev into this social network. What Angela wanted was friendship and an outlet for her art. All of her Facebook friends, in this deeply developed scenario, are manufactured. She cleverly used photos from other Facebook profile, something that is very easy to do.

It is explained that Angela seems to have fabricated these fictional people on Facebook as a way to escape the regrets that came with sacrifices that she had to make in order to have a family and a stable life that included some major personal sacrifice. As the film progresses towards the end, Angela's life around the house and interactions with her actual family are shown. They strike me as very real.

In my online research I learned, both from Wikipedia and other sites, that Catfish is believed by some to be a phony documentary. The Schulman brothers, and their friend Joost, stand behind their original statements: they say the film is "100% true” and give what appears to be a very credible explanation in a 25-minute feature that is included on the DVD.

The film received a 82% "fresh" rating on the popular site I use all the time, Rotten Tomatoes. The site's consensus was that "Catfish may tread the line between real-life drama and crass exploitation a little too unsteadily for some viewers' tastes, but its timely premise and tightly wound mystery make for a gripping documentary.”

TIME did a full page article in a September 2010 issue, saying "as you watch Catfish, squirming in anticipation of the trouble that must lie ahead―why else would this be a movie?―you're likely to think this is the real face of social networking." I deeply concur. This film complements the award winning box-office hit The Social Network in a powerfully real way. If you’ve seen the big film you really ought to see this film.

I found Catfish a moving story of just how far a person would go to find an alternative world in which she could get friendship and affirmation. Angela, the woman who constructed the false identity, seems credible and all-too-much like some people in our society who desperately need human touch and love. She doesn’t strike the viewer as a typical (or dangerous) liar, but a person who lies because of a deep emotional need, which of course means she is still a lair nonetheless. My question here is very simple: “Are there not many people like Angela who have never constructed a false identity on Facebook but who long for an identity other than the one they really have and use social media to attempt to construct their reality?” Angela was not looking for romance, though she used it cleverly to attract Nev. She was looking for an outlet for her creative expression in art and a way to gain something that she felt she had missed in all her present relationships. This is part of what makes the film so interesting to me.

The other reason the film is so interesting is to be seen in the way Nev responds to Angela when he actually finds out that he was duped. He is upset, and in the interview in the feature explains why and how, but he shows remarkable compassion and human insight at the same time. One could cynically say that this was all about the film but there seems to be so much more here than that. I think the viewer is afforded a glimpse of twenty-something adults that is powerful. In fact, this is so powerful that I would not hesitate to show this film to Christian groups in order to talk about culture, mission and friendship. Frankly, I could use this film in my evangelism class. It is that good.

Wikipedia reports the following critical responses to Catfish, which I took directly from the site:

At the 2010 Sundance Film Festival Alison Willmore of IFC described it as a "sad, unusual love story.” John DeFore of The Hollywood Reporter called Catfish "jaw-dropping" and "crowd-pleasing" but said that it "will require clever marketing in order to preserve the surprises at its core." Kyle Buchanan of Movieline asked if "easily the most buzzed-about documentary" at Sundance had "a truth problem", and reported that an audience member questioned whether it was a documentary at all. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times referred to these questions as a "severe cross-examination" and stated his belief that "everyone in the film is exactly as the film portrays them."

I urge you to watch Catfish. Decide for yourself if these three young men made this story up to play the audience with an amazing hoax. I agree with Roger Ebert’s comments above. I also believe Catfish is a powerful and insightful look at human relationships, the power and attraction of social networking, the lies we tell to ourselves and others, and the love and grace we all crave and need. This is, I promise you, a provocative and amazing film. If it is a hoax it is one that intrigued me profoundly.

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  1. Adam Shields February 4, 2011 at 5:04 am

    I saw Catfish a couple weeks ago. I think is it true is the wrong questions. I think it could be true. I think there are cases when people did similar things. The point, it is seems to me, is the desire for attention/friendship/love on both sides.

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