It seems just about everyone is on Facebook these days. From your mom to your grandma to your boss, people you don't necessarily want to share every aspect of your digital identity with have sent you a friend request, but they aren't the only ones. You're also inundated with messages from people you've never met. Even before Facebook, the Internet provided a platform for people to "meet" other people from all over the world. We're more connected than ever before, but how do we know the people we are connecting with online are really who they say they are, and what happens when our "friends" aren't being exactly truthful about who they are? Earlier this month, The Social Network showed us the beginnings of a website that changed the way the world communicates. Now, Catfish takes that medium and documents the way it can be used to manipulate our perception of reality.
In 2007, Yaniv "Nev" Schulman received a painting in the mail from an eight-year-old Michigan girl named Abby. The painting was a recreation of a photo Nev had published in a magazine. Soon after, the two found each other on Facebook and exchanged messages, photos and paintings. Nev got to know members of Abby's family: her mother, Angela and sister, Megan, the latter with whom he began to communicate with on a more intimate level. Nev's brother, Ariel "Rel" Schulman and his filmmaking partner, Henry Joost, began to document the interactions. One night the men become suspicious of who Megan and Angela really are after some curious inconsistencies and basic Googling. Suddenly, the documentary morphs into a mysterious thriller that will have you gripping the edge of your seat in trepidation.
The film, which takes its name from a character revealing anecdote shared toward the end of the film by one of the subjects, relies on a raw approach that makes you feel like you're in the room with Nev and Rel. The film quality varies due to the use of different types of cameras, but the reason you see this movie isn't for its cinematographic achievements. Catfish incorporates aspects of our digital lives, which dress up some of the more drab parts of the film, including when Nev, Rel, and Henry use GoogleEarth before setting out on a road trip to meet Angela, Megan and Abby.
But the question Catfish continually asks is this: how much do we really know about the people we meet over the web? When Rel asks Nev if he and Megan are in a relationship, Nev tells him that if they met in person and there was chemistry they would definitely be a couple. When they make the trip and Nev discovers the truth (I won't ruin it), he feels duped, and no doubt embarrassed at the signs he missed and how attached he got to someone he'd never met. The film brings up important issues in the digital world, and just how much information we share in the age of connectivity. Some viewers may come out of Catfish more paranoid about connecting with strangers via the Internet. But, the film reiterates what we already know, which is to be careful about who you share information with and what you share.
Beyond the rough filmmaking, beyond the connectivity and manipulation of social media, what truly makes this film interesting is the perception of the relationships on both ends. We see Nev start to care for Megan, and then experience his complete embarrassment when reading their text conversations to the camera after doubting her truthfulness. Where the real depth of the film comes in is after the reveal, when we get to peek in to the human psyche and discover the truth behind Nev's Facebook family.
There has been speculation since the movie premiered as to whether or not it is truly is a documentary, or if it's a work of fiction. Viewers may wonder why it took Nev and the gang so long to Google Abby and her family, along with other questionable circumstances in the film. Some people may feel betrayed if it is in fact a work of fiction trying to pull itself off as a documentary, but does it really matter all that much? What's important is that the story is intriguing and it portrays a realistic examination of social networking and human psychology.
Starring Yaniv Schulman.
Directed by Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost.