It’s 3am. I’ve begrudgingly rolled out of bed, leaving my girlfriend to sleep in peace, and plonked myself down in front of the laptop for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the air conditioning at our place is on the fritz, and trying to sleep without AC in the West Australian summer is like Joaquin Phoenix trying to break into the hip-hop industry: impossible and sweaty. Secondly, I’ve been unable to stop thinking about the movie I watched about eight hours ago: Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s Catfish. It’s a documentary that examines the meaning of an online identity. It asks why we share the things we do on the internet, and why we lie about ourselves, be it on Facebook, Twitter or in movie reviews. For instance, I just revealed a number of personal details about myself in the first three sentences of this article. Why? I don’t know you. At this very moment, I’m typing into an empty void. And you there, hypothetical reader, why should you believe anything I’ve said? How do you know that I’m not really writing this review the following morning, after tossing and turning all evening, processing the review in my head and thinking, ‘maybe I should say I got out of bed to write this thing in the middle of the night’? How do you even know I have a girlfriend? You’ll just have to trust me, I guess. And that leads us to another of the questions raised by Catfish: why are we so willing, so eager, to trust the identities of strangers that seem to live exclusively on the interwebs?
It’s a big movie critic no-no to litter your review with hypothetical questions and the intricacies of your personal air conditioning situation (probably). But such is the existential dilemma that Catfish has thrust me into. I enjoy a number of relationships – both professional and personal – that have been fostered entirely online. I have a dear, personal friend that I’ve never actually physically met, and I work with a number of people that I’ve never actually spoken to. I doubt that I’m in the minority. Catfish won’t make you question these pre-existing relationships (or maybe it will), but it will most certainly make you question your continued receptiveness to online companionship. If Inception had you jokingly wonder what is real and what is fake, Catfish will have you frantically scrambling around for totems to spin just to double check the veracity of the existence of yourself and the people around you.
The subject of this film is Nev Schulman, a polite New York photographer whose pictures capture the eye of an eight-year-old girl named Abby. She lives in the rural town of Ishpeming, Michigan, but she is able to get in touch with him thanks to the wonders of Web 2.0. She emails, IMs and Facebook messages’ Nev some fan mail, and eventually mails him some extraordinary paintings based on his photographs. Nev is genuinely touched by her fandom, which he in turn reciprocates. He justifies their relationship by keeping in touch with her supportive mother Angela; to let her know that nothing “weird” is going on between the two of them. They too become close, and soon Nev is Facebook friends with Abby’s entire family, including her saucy half-sister Megan. Nev’s best bud Henry and brother Ariel decide to examine these unusual – but seemingly harmless – friendships by making a documentary about it all. Ostensibly, they are trying to capture the meaning and authenticity of a relationship born online, particularly as Nev and Megan begin to forge something close to a long-distance relationship. However, as the documentary continues, the trio decides to Google Abby, Angela and Megan, and discover not all is as it seems.
Do not read any further if you’ve not yet seen Catfish. Just know that I’m giving it five stars, and come back after you’ve watched and been blown away be it. From this point forward, I will be discussing what happens after the film unveils its major revelation.
Seriously, don’t ruin it for yourself.
So, it is revealed that Angela is in fact the person behind all of Abby’s emails and paintings, and also the voice of Megan, with whom Nev had fallen in love. Yep, although Angela Wesselman is in fact the mother of both an Abby and Megan, neither of them are aware of Nev’s existence. Their online identities were entirely fabricated and maintained by their mother without their knowledge (the same goes for about twelve other fake Facebook friends whom she created to give the veneer of reality to her Web 2.0 of lies). The profile pictures were stolen from other accounts; voices over the phone were faked. These revelations are so conveniently cinematic, many who have seen the film are convinced the whole thing is a fakery, a’la I’m Still Here or Exit Through The Gift Shop. Joost and the Schulmans maintain the whole thing is absolutely legit. Andrew Jarecki is credited as one of the producers; he directed the phenomenal Capturing the Friedmans in 2004. It’s another too-strange-to-be-true documentary that, if released in this climate of scepticism and fakeumentaries, would probably be accused of being fictional also.
When Nev finally meets Angela, he expects to see the real woman behind the identities. But this is not a person who is defined by her so-called “real identity”. Yes, she’s a mother and a wife, but this is not who she is. We were closer to knowing her when she was the childlike artist ‘Abby’, or the flirty charlatan ‘Megan’. Her “real identity” is as someone so bored and so detached from their life they feel the need to create entirely different personas to live vicariously through. The internet did not create that beast. It just offered it the opportunity to manifest itself. And it worked. In what other universe could someone as mentally disturbed as Angela Wesselman carry on a romantic relationship – even if it is entirely online – with a handsome New Yorker like Nev. He was in love with her, and she was in love with him. The only thing she lied about was everything regarding her entire identity – but can they really deny the feelings they shared?
Angela Wesselman and Nev Schulman are perhaps two of the saddest characters ever committed to film. We learn that they continue to be Facebook friends, but Angela – even after being confronted with the truth – continues to lie to Nev and communicate to him through fake guises. She’s deep down the rabbit hole now. And poor Nev. How does someone come back from that? How do you trust again? I’m not just talking about trusting people you meet online. How does someone rationalise the feelings of love they felt for someone that ostensibly did not exist, or did, but not as he was led to believe? When he finally confronts her, he does so tenderly. He sits for her as she paints one last portrait of him, and they discuss the reasons why she lied. Angela can’t come up with any excuse that can really explain it. No one asks Nev why he was so eager to believe in the fake family and the universe created by Angela, or why he was willing to naively live and love in it. That’s because it’s easy to understand why he does. We all do it every day.
Catfish arrives in Australian cinemas January 27th, 2011.