Catfish begins as a relatively innocuous documentary about the innocent online relationship that 24 year old Nev Schulman (brother of one of the directors, Ariel) has with an 8 year old girl named Abby. The relationship begins when Abby paints one of Nev’s photos and impressed by the quality of the paintings Nev sends her more photos to paint. Surprisingly, there appears to be no suspicion at this point about the authenticity of the paintings on Nev’s part. Interestingly Amir Bar-Lev’s My Kid Could Paint That came out around the same time (judging by the timeline of the film although this is a little unclear). Clearly Nev didn’t see it.
Through Facebook Nev developments relationships with Abby’s whole family, most significantly with her mother Angela and Abby’s 19 year old sister Megan. Nev and Megan really seem to hit it off and the communication becomes increasingly flirtatious. This develops into something close to a long distance relationship and the content of their communication becomes more sexual. Megan also begins sending songs to Nev that she has recorded, even recording them to order.
Then there is the revelation. Nev discovers that one of the songs that Megan has claimed to have written and recorded herself is actually a song form the soundtrack of One Tree Hill and this sparks Nev and the filmmakers to begin investigating many of the claims by Angela, Abby and Megan. This unravels an intricate web of lies that becomes even more surprising when the trio drop in on the family unexpectedly.
Angela has created the whole thing, she is responsible for the paintings, she set up and maintained a number of fake Facebook accounts, the photos of her and Megan are false, and in conversations with Nev on the phone she pretended to be Megan. The most truthful part though appears to be the affection she has for Nev, although the outlet for this had been through the fictional Megan. There is a moment when they first meet in person and she embraces him and she holds him just that little bit too long.
The moment where Angela opens the door and the camera goes inside is tense and jaw dropping but there is sadness to follow as one quickly realises the reasons for Angela’s deception. Clearly intelligent and creative Angela appears to feel trapped by her home life. A lot of her time is spent caring for her two step-sons who are severely disabled and the emotional and physical weight of this is clearly huge. The fictional Facebook life that she created was her respite from this. These Facebook creations though are also fragments of Angela, something she even speaks to in one particularly moving scene, hopes and dreams distilled into photos of other people, imagined conversations, fictional artistic success, idealised children and even a ‘real’ romantic relationship.
This is one of the most fascinating aspects of Catfish and its place in documenting modern culture. More and more we live our lives online and via communication devices where physical contact is often non-existent. The way we appear to others is therefore more easily controlled than ever before. Do people create Facebook pages that accurately represent who they are or how they want others to see them. Angela’s perception of Nev too is purely formed from Facebook, texts, IMs and brief calls and it is not perhaps as true an image as one would get from meeting him. His is not as calculated or complex a deception but it is an artifice that Nev and most people who live online consciously or not orchestrate daily. Although people obviously often try and create a different image of themselves in person, the artifice is much easier to see when interacting in ‘real life’.
The subject of Catfish could also be seen to be Nev too, despite the revelation at the mid way point that uncovers Angela’s story. The focus on Nev appears to be how the film began and it seems to in many ways remain Nev’s story. Angela’s constructed second life and her real life may be fascinating but it is the impact that they have had on Nev and the reasons why that are also very illuminating. That Nev could be so naive as to so willingly believe what he was seeing and hearing (as far back as BBS people have joked about who you are really talking to) is perhaps a testament to how much he wanted it to be true. Despite his seemingly privileged surroundings, interesting career and close relationship with his brother and friends, he is quick to jump at the chance of becoming involved with this new found family. Perhaps the lure of Facebook and the online social experience is not the same as the ‘real’ and less perfect tactile social experience and the inherent artifice is part of the attraction.
In the extreme artifice that Angela has created, the makers of Catfish really have hit gold though and the perfect hook for a popular documentary. Joost and the Schulman’s don’t appear to have made Catfish because they have a burning creative desire to tell a story or investigate a fascinating subject, they just started filming and kept the cameras rolling to see what happened. This is in itself also fascinating and of course ties in beautifully to the themes inherent in the film about the way we now document our lives. Does this make them good documentary filmmakers though and Catfish a good film or did they just catch a lucky break.
This is not perhaps altogether important when one is discussing the themes of the film but it has led to the filmmakers stumbling into the tricky area of exploitation and the ethical responsibilities of documentary makers. Documentary filmmaker Malcolm Ingram, for instance, has been very vocal about the way in which he feels the makers of Catfish have neglected this responsibility. You can hear his thoughts on the excellent Documentary Blog Podcast. He expresses strongly the opinion that Angela was exploited and he is not alone. I would argue that the reality is not quite as black or white as Ingram seems to suggest but it is certainly interesting to consider the question of ethics in Catfish, especially given the wider acceptance that our lives are public, whether we want them to be or not.
I posed the question of the ethical considerations they faced to Henry Joost and how these were balanced with the fact that their subject had strong feelings for someone involved in the production, and how she was perhaps willing to do anything for him. Also I referred to the moment in the film where they comment that they want to help her not hurt her and asked if ultimately they felt they had helped her;
There are a lot of ethical considerations in making this film and it was very important to us that we had the consent of everyone in the film including Nev, but Angela most importantly. That’s why we went back after Sundance. At that point over a year had passed since we’d been there. I think the emotions had passed, the moment had faded away enough that we could say, look this is a film that is going to be released and a lot of people are going to see it and there’s going to be attention and that’s impossible to avoid. Is that okay? Is all that that entails okay? And she said yes again…
…Recently she did an interview with 20/20 and they did a full hour about Catfish and saved this interview with Angela for the end. She decided that she just wanted to do one interview and that’s it. She’s had lots of request and she wanted to do just this one. And they asked her a lot of these question that I think are natural like ‘Do you feel like these guys exploited you? Has this film had a positive impact on your life?’ And to the exploitation question she said no, if anything I think I exploited them and I exploited Nev for this to happen. She credits, not the film so much, as the experience of having us show up and not be attackers but be ready to listen as the moment where instead of having this great artifice that she had built come crumbling down she was able to take it apart slowly and think about it and deal with it, becoming confident as herself. Since then she’s launched her website and had more success with her artwork and she’s been doing the things that she does well; she’s been designing the website for another film that is shooting. She sees it as this kind of catalyst, she could become herself. It was always our hope that it would be positive for her and we’ve seen that in small ways. She’s a creative force and we want to see her use this towards her painting. She could really do anything, write a novel.. I think her possibilities are limitless. I think she’s one of the most fascinating, brilliant people I’ve ever met.
As Joost mentions Angela is now selling her work and her paintings can be found here. Although Joost also discussed how Angela was able to slowly take apart the artificial world that she had created and deal with it, the time given to Angela actually dealing with this was minuscule and although Angela has seemingly been propelled into action, launching a website for her paintings and working on new projects, is this the kind of help she needed? The push to be more public about her actual life and wide reaching self promotion, does this help her? As a character comments in that other Facebook film, “The internet’s not written in pencil, Mark. It’s written in ink”. The same goes for cinema. Angela Pierce is famous now. She is famous not for the quality of her paintings and it is probably safe to say that nothing she ever does will surpass the notoriety she has because of this documentary. Perhaps too similarly to the mentally unwell participants of television talent shows who are looking for a chance at success or five minutes of fame but are paraded on stage to be mocked by an audience, Angela is exposed and her life thrust into the public conscious. Her willingness to comply with this could well be more to do with her affection for Nev and guilt for her actions than anything else.
It seems telling as well that the trio make such a point of commenting on their desire to help her not hurt her. There is obviously a feeling of guilt that they do not want to hurt her but is it the job of the documentary filmmaker to help their subject? To ensure they do not exploit or unfairly treat their subject maybe but help? This also feels far too in line with another recent scourge of modern television, the ‘documentary’ where a personality is brought in to help the subject deal with their problems, wrapping it up neatly at the end, perhaps to the strains of Coldplay. Luckily the makers of Catfish do not push too far with this idea and ultimately it is very questionable as to whether they helped Angela at all.
There is one particular moment that slips deepest into an uncomfortable ethical territory where the aim seems not to help or document but to create a ‘great scene.’ Nev asks Angela to affect the ‘Megan voice’ for him and it is one of the most deeply unsettling moments in the film, made far worse by the perma-grin on Nev’s face. An awkward smile brought on by embarrassment or a smug self-satisfied grin? The true meaning of it is unclear.
Even more unsettling was the reaction in the screening I attended. It is incredibly difficult to divorce my experience of watching the film to what is on screen and I even went to see it again in an effort to reassess it. Both screenings were the same, howls of laughter. These were admittedly greater in the first half, there are a number of scenes that are very amusing unless you are aware of the truth of the situation, but they continued at an only slighter reduced volume in the second half. One could make the argument that this was the nervous laughter of people unsure what to make of what they were seeing but the silence when the disabled sons were on screen was very telling. The biggest laugh was when Angela replicates the ‘Megan voice’. Regardless of the ambiguity in Nev’s grin, the audience’s reaction appears to be clear, this is hilarious.
What this reaction offers by way of social commentary is as equally fascinating as the themes covered in the film. Although the filmmakers cannot control an audiences’ reactions (but their guiding of the audience’s emotions is crucial I would argue) in Catfish Joost and Schulman have created a film that is perhaps far too slanted towards a comedic tone rather than the thoughtful documentary that is actually lurking beneath the surface. Catfish is still utterly fascinating though, whether by design or happy accident, and as a document of modern attitudes it is essential viewing.