Does Sundance Sensation Catfish Have a Truth Problem?

At the end of yesterday's well-received screening of Catfish -- easily the most buzzed-about documentary at this year's Sundance Film Festival -- one man raised his hand for the Q&A.

"This may be a minority opinion," he said. "I think you guys did a great job, but I don't think it's a documentary."

A murmur went through the crowd and the filmmakers became angry and defensive, but more on that later. In the meantime: Brother, I'm right there with you. There's something fishy about Catfish, and I'm not just talking about the title.

Catfish is directed by Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost and stars Schulman's photographer brother Nev, a good-looking 24-year-old who's also very comfortable in front of a camera (despite his cursory protests to the contrary). Shortly after Nev takes a picture of two dancers for the New York Sun, he's sent a painting of the photo from an eight-year-old painter named Abby Pierce, who he then befriends on Facebook along with her mother, Angela, and Abby's foxy older sister Megan. Soon enough, the film posits, Nev begins falling for Megan, and the two of them begin a long-distance internet courtship since Megan and her family live in rural Michigan. Still, things are not quite as they seem.

(I'll warn you now that there will be some spoilers to follow, though many of the film's principal surprises will go unrevealed by me.)

After several months -- all filmed, of course -- Nev and the filmmakers grow suspicious when they learn that the intimate, unplugged songs that Megan has sent to Nev weren't actually recorded by her. Conveniently, they're already on a trip to the midwest when they figure this out, so they decide to drive to the family's house to figure out whether any of the Pierces truly exist, and who exactly is behind what increasingly appears to be a ruse.

What they find and film there is ultimately a very sad, lonely person, though Nev and the filmmakers (wearing shit-eating grins through the encounter) try to skirt charges of exploiting her by leaning heavily on all that build-up. All three men claim that they had no idea that anything was amiss during those several months of online and on-the-phone chats. I don't buy it at all; I think the filmmakers knew from the start what they had on their hands, and they baited a mentally unwell woman for almost a year until their film needed a climax.

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Comments

  • Alex - Bosnia says:

    Lets assume that the film is 100% genuine as the authors claim (which I do not believe).
    What they did in the first place was wrong. While watching, I was waiting for trio to come up and admit to Angela that they did not have good intensions from the start, as well. They never do it. They put all the blame on Angela but the fact is that they just had a “luck” that the other side turns out to be even worse. That does not make them ok in any way unless any of you thinks that it is ok to deliberately share your most intimate moments intended for you ONLY with two other guys WITHOUT you knowing it. So even if the film is true (and it is not, at least not 100% as they claim) Angela did not do anything they haven’t – they both are deceiving each other. The problem is that they only left Angela with the guilt.

  • Ed says:

    What is up with Nev's tramp stamp?

  • Angel says:

    I'M GOING TO SAY SOMETHING THAT I HOPE SOMONE ALREADY HAS. IT DOESNT MATTER WHETHER NEV KNEW SHE WAS REAL OR NOT. USUALLY IN THESE TYPES OF SITUATIONS YOU HAVE SUSPICIONS. THE GREATNESS OF THE FILM LIES WITHIN THE CREW FINDING THE TRUTH. WHO CARES IF HE HAD SUSPISIONS PRIOR...HE HAD NO PROOF, AND WHEN HE FOUND THE YOUTUBE CLIPS HE HAD SOMETHING TO WORK WITH. I THINK ITS MORE REALISTIC TO ASSUME THAT HE HAD RESERVATIONS BUT HE COULD NOT HAVE KNOWN FOR SURE. THIS ARTICLE IS CRAP. IRRELEVANT. AND THE CRITIC SHOULD BE EMBARRASSED.

  • Lydia says:

    Asli, do we know for sure that Angela's stepsons had Noonan's Syndrome? My thought is that it must be Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. People with FAS look a lot like those with Noonan's Syndrome, but mental retardation is uncommon with Noonan's, whereas it's almost always present with FAS; and FAS victims have short life spans.
    FAS would also help to explain why Vincent had custody of the boys, rather than his ex-wife, and why Angela was familiar with the name of a Michigan rehab center when she needed an excuse for Megan's absence.

  • CynicalCritic says:

    Bottom line: I saw the movie last night and, until Angela appeared, I was bored out of my skull. The film was reminiscent of the short films my friends made in high school and college. So little footage was worthy of a film; there was only enough worth footage to validate a short film. The premise is a mere five-minute news segment.
    We spend so much time seeing the boys' insincerely "shocked" expressions and listening to one recite text message/email conversations. A real documentarian or "accidental" filmmaker could have edited stronger footage to get the message across. The deleted footage, actually, sounds much more fascinating than what ended up in the film; particularly, one scene, described by the filmmakers during the DVD bonus discussion, in which Angela catches Neve in an online like about cooking as one of his Facebook "interests".

  • Levana says:

    Ariel and Yaniv are Hebrew names, Hatchi. They're both fairly common names in Israel, especially Ariel. It's likely that one of their parents is Israeli, or that the family has close ties to Israel.

  • Ms Curious says:

    Hoax or doco? Mmmm, lots of things to suggest it's not entirely true. Lots of continuity issues. But it has me hooked, pardon the pun. I've been doing a lot of investigating and found some interesting things, that don't quite add up and a long list of shall we say 'coincidences'. Come and chat.
    http://www.rowthree.com/2010/10/22/catfish-why-the-hoax-is-probably-fake/comment-page-2/#comment-54228

  • Frank with an R says:

    I enjoyed the oddness of the movie and the story-li(n)e in general. I mean, I felt like it was a ploy but didn't mind. I also loved JT LeRoy's work and can say I really couldn't care less about the authors veracity.
    I guess many things seemed curious enough about the online romance. No SKYPE? No Facebook chatting? It seems thin but once you lie you sort of have to keep it up or come across as a jack-ass.

  • Ms Curious says:

    Frank with an R, I like where you say story - li(n)e. :) So you don't care less about the author's verarcity? I suppose on one level it doesn't matter really, the film offers entertainment, intrigue etc. However, with some 146 continuity issues, it's a bit rich that Nev comes out and claims 'continuity in clips' (it's just not accurate). Perhaps he's never watched the film and hasn't noticed all of the obvious and the many 'you have to look for them' and (I'll be kind) and call them 'editing flaws'. When you refer to J T LeRoy, I take you've also seen the film 'Silent Listener'? Anyway, I'll leave you with this thought 'all lies lead to to the truth'.

  • me says:

    My friends insisted I had to see "Catfish," just so we could debate its merits, but they never told me anything about it--which was moderately annoying. I'm a sociologist, obviously I can't resist a good debate, and so I watched the film. Although I enjoyed watching it, that came primarily from anticipation of my critique. By the way, I'm known for my balanced read on things--I hope that will also be true in this case. For what it's worth, these are my thoughts on the film. I was disappointed because I'd expected so much more after all the hype of my friends. The circumstances in which someone on the internet portrays him or herself as someone completely different is not uncommon. It's not new, it's not surprising, and it's not even terribly interesting. The possibility of encountering a fake on-line is known to any casual user of social network sites (not to mention the copious email spam announcing you've won a bajillion dollars) so to see such educated and technologically savvy individuals pretend to be surpised by that event was plainly disengenuous and, frankly, silly. I thought "oh, come on, how old are you guys?" At no moment in the earliest part of the film does Nev convey any suspiscion whatsoever that an 8 year old could write grammatically correct and sophisticated letters and would want to bother with an adult--most children more typically experience unknown adults as authoritarians, not as fun friends. And, supposedly, not for one moment does Nev wonder how a "down to earth" mom from the midwest would allow, much less relish and encourage, the interest of a total stranger in her young daughter. Again, I asked myself, "come on," even in face to face interactions the vast majority of people hold at least some doubts and suspicions about new friends and especially potential love interests, consequently it's completely unnatural that early on Nev would express no doubts at all. Yes, human's make mistakes, but the writers for this script forgot to include reasonable humanity for Nev's character. Indeed, Nev's insincerity/inhumanity was glaringly obvious, as well as grating, particularly in the scene in which he supposedly discovers the first hint that Meg might be a fake because he found proof that she had scammed him by taking credit for other people's music. At no point does the audience hear him say something to the effect of "Wow, what a dupe I was! How could I have been so stupid?" Or, "how could she do this to me?" Real reactions display real vulnerability, and sincere feelings are messy and often demonstrate self-doubt. No, their reactions were all just too cool to be genuinely human. At the very least, if the audience had heard Nev express his humanity in some way we'd then be able to understand why a person would expend so much energy, time, and money to go supposedly searching for the truth of something they already knew to be true: i.e., Meg was a fake. No, rationally there are only two possible reasons for why these young men decided to go to Michigan, and neither of them have anything to do with finding out the so-called truth. The first possibility was that their egos were injured because they'd been duped, and they were seeking the satisfaction of confronting the liar. However, that rational depends on them actually having been duped, and this is highly suspect. That leaves rational number two, that they went to Michigan for the sole purpose of making a movie in which Nev could be portrayed as the romantic, sensitive hero whose heart is broken, with the nasty monster called the internet and/or Meg/Angela being cupable (either or both would suffice). So focused on casting Nev as the "lied to," gentle hero/white knight (white knight because he so kindly in the film doesn't give Angela the terrible tongue lashing the film makes certain to show she deserves) they failed to recognize how alienating their own use of blatent subterfuge to film the events in Michigan would be on some members of the audience. It was particularly revealing that they picked wild flowers (a sort of modern day Trojan horse, if you will) to make themselves appear sweet and gentle to the very woman they knew they were going to portray in the film as, at the very least, slightly deranged. Even if we can assume Angela was in on the hoax, their actions in the films still do not convey that their characters are honest and authentic human beings.
    Don't misunderstand, there's no dount that these guys are crafty, but they didn't accomplish very much in terms of artistry/entertainment. They got one more distributor to put one more mediocre film into the public arena. They created one more film that is as emotionally manipulative as any Hollywood film. So what can I say? I find their effort to be positively mundane. What was truly interesting, unique and even titillating about "Catfish," was the unbelievable ego the film makers unknowingly displayed in their calm pursuit of using the "otherness" of a lonely woman in order to contrast their supposed perfection. Now that is jaw-dropping.

  • WUWT says:

    I don't call them "bumpkins" -- I say they're most decidedly not, which makes their gullibility and their decision to never Google any of these people they're documenting or "falling in love with" hard to buy.
    This is the second time you've written this, yet he also write that you've seen the movie. In that case, how did you miss the significant scene where the brothers DO Google Abby Pierce's name and "painter" after being told she had her first art show - and then become suspicious when they can't find anything in local press or on her city's website about her "gallery opening"? It's after that they locate the building the family claimed they bought and turned into an art gallery and called the real estate agent to discover that it was vacant. There's even a throwaway comment by Nev that he had previously Googled "Abigail Pierce." He doesn't mention what he found, but I imagine that an ordinary name like that would turn up thousands of results. Why would anyone become suspicious if they couldn't find any significant web results for an 8-year-old with a common name?
    And how many people really do an in-depth search on their Facebook friends?
    What I don't find credible is the notion that it's "obvious" that Nev should've been suspicious. If you've ever tried to do a Google check on an online friend, basically the only thing you can hope for is that you can find their social networking sites and judge if they look okay. Most people's internet presence is limited to Facebook or LinkedIn. Nev not only had Megan's active Facebook profile but spoke to her on the phone at her personal number, saw many photos of her, and he even had her address and photos of her home. He'd received many packages and spoke to her mom on the phone. I've been online for almost 15 years now and that's above and beyond what most people would consider reassuring proof that an online buddy was legit. Why would anyone assume that a person would go to the lengths to fake active 15 Facebook profiles, maintain separate phones, email accounts, fake photos, etc.? As for "falling in love" - I think the movie made it clear that Nev was, at most, interested in a bit of nookie with an attractive fellow twentysomething. It would hardly be the first time two people the ages of "Megan" and Nev hooked up due to Facebook.
    Also - the filmmakers didn't "just happen to be in the midwest" when they visited Angela, as Kyle Johnson writes above. They were in Colorado to film a dance festival, excerpts of which are even included in the film. They then explain that they decided to stop in Michigan on their way home.

  • Corky says:

    Nev, is that you?

  • Dave says:

    @Shea: I just saw the 20/20 special too and followed the exact same patterns of thought, eventually ending up on this article thinking that many others must think this movie is pure BS. Good to see I'm not alone, bravo to all you like-minded internet skeptics!
    You really summed up my viewing experience perfectly. I thought it seemed odd that a twenty something would allow an 8 year old to associate with him on myspace in the first place (moreover, how would an 8 year old have the know-how to mail them her works of art?).
    Maybe it was the way 20/20 presented it, but I too thought that the main male actor (and I use that term loosely) was full of shit from the first interview. He just screamed narcissist pretty boy.
    Moreover, there's just no way people are that clueless on the internet in this day and age. If some anonymous figure on myspace (lol) sends you a pic of an attractive blond female as 'her' photograph, 9.999 times out of 10 it's actually some dirty neckbeard yanking his pud on the other end rather than the girl of your dreams.
    Seriously though, by the end of the 1 hour preview for it, my piss was boiling at the idiocy of it all. They should just come clean already and own up to orchestrating the whole thing.

  • Gavyn says:

    http://www.miningjournal.net/page/content.detail/id/516869.html?nav=5007
    He does not look like he has FAS at all. I have been trying to figure out what form of MR these boys were born with since I first saw the movie. I believe it is Noonan's syndrome, a rare case with MR.

    • Liz says:

      There is little validity to be found for trying to "figure out what form of MR these buys were born with". You can't particularly tell by looking in most cases. In my work, which is extensive, a LOT of people have similar physical symptoms. I don't think you have the ability to diagnose NS by sitting at home. You certainly can't run genetic testing. And about 1/3 of those with NS are mildly MR. These guys were severe to profoundly MR. Get a life, Gavyn.

  • Pb says:

    Who gives a shit... It was a cool movie, your article has no valid examples.

  • Sarah says:

    I watched the DVD release that sports s a 4-star Empire quote praising the film on its cover, which simply states: "Unbelievable filmmaking".

  • Anthony says:

    I've never seen the actual movie, but, the 20/20 was interesting. This is mostly likely never to happen. That's why it did.

  • HolyTits says:

    Just watched the DVD and I feel cheated. It was presented as a thriller slash doc and it is neither. It seems like a faux doc intended to bring money and fame to the two bros and their friends and a lot of folks fell for it. Deception is the key word over all.
    Also, it's not a very original story: online deception in the age of FB is very common, so common in fact as to be downright boring as a subject, unless you put a really clever spin on it.
    Something that no one has mentioned - as far as I know anyway: a 24-year old man corresponding with an 8-year girl is beyond creepy even if they were just talking about paintings and photography. Sure, that girl turns out to be her mom pretending to be her, but the idea is still creepy.
    My brain hurts just writing this and it's not worth it getting a headache over a movie. And man, do I feel stupid for even posting this. Then again, hundreds of other people have commented here, so maybe I shouldn't feel so bad.

  • Angel says:

    How do you have a long distance relationship with someone for MONTHS and never use a webcam? This "documentary" is a crock of shit.

  • Bob E says:

    I enjoyed "Catfish", but not for the gotcha mentality of the narcisistic and shallow filmakers. I enjoyed it for the simple humanity of Angela's husband. What a stark contrast to the trio from New York. He knew what his wife was doing. Yet, he loved her enough to let her escape from her sad reality through the internet fantasy world that she had created for herself. And he explained it elegantly, and eloquently, with the story of the catfish in the salmon tanks.

    The fact that the filmakers named the movie after the catfish story makes me optimistic that they, too, recognized his humanity, and Angela's humanity. That would mean that, as they mature, their own humanity might someday emerge from within the cynical shells that they currently inhabit.

  • anna says:

    I'm currently writing an essay on this film, as a documentary. Of course, I wouldn't go as far as to say that not one part of the film was changed after shooting - that's called editing. The close-ups of facebook profiles and so forth can very easily be done later along the line, and if it's that and the Google Earth footage that's throwing you off, you obviously have never made a film before.
    As a film maker myself who has worked on a few low-budget documentaries "for fun," you learn that by taking a camera out and filming, you will eventually find a story. The idea of documenting Nev and Abby's friendship for a short film can't be judged or doubted with any merit, and it seems that is where a lot of the uncertainty comes from - why did they start filming so early?

    Of course, the filmmakers saying that Nev is "cinematic" seems like a feeble excuse, but on many occasions I have taken out a camera with me for no obvious reason, and something interesting is bound to happen. That is where the whole notion of documentary arose - in the late 1800s filmmakers would just go out and film workers leaving a factory, or if you see "Man with a Movie Camera"; this sort of thing doesn't always need to have a plot or motive behind it. Similar to photographers, who always have a camera on them (we all know one,) filmmakers, especially those working in documentaries, are the same.

    I was just reading through the comments and also came across one saying that this film isn't worth the credit, as it's a "boring documentary." Just a week ago I was watching old Channel 4 documentaries and there are a lot of similar films depicting facebook stalkers or online relationships - this isn't a new idea but that doesn't give any reason to why someone shouldn't do the same thing - you try and tell me of a film idea of which at least half hasn't been seen before. Also, on the prospect of the continuity errors, which have been spoken a lot about, this happens in documentaries! Of course they won't have filmed every single moment, and even if they did there is no way to cut a film like this without leaving a little room for speculation. The whole thing just screams "Exit through the Gift Shop."

    Anyway, whether the film is real or not, only the directors and those involved are going to know. But either way, I think the directors deserve credit for their work, and each to their own.

    • Jim says:

      I did not see the trailers, so I didn't feel "cheated" when I saw this on HBO. Some say it's real, some say it's fake...

      The truth is somewhere in between. Here are a few of the problems I had with the film:

      The first scenes at Angela's house were filmed (by Nev's brother?) with a hidden camera, yet Angela is visualized perfectly. That would be extremely difficult to do - for any camerman.

      Of course, the lack of any video chatting between Megan and Nev, after so many months, is telling.

      BUT SERIOUSLY: The story at the end???? Vince talks about the catfish being put into the tank with cod, to keep the cod agile? Really? LOL... So, I guess it's believable to put freshwater fish (catfish) in tanks with fish that require saltwater? (Or viceversa). .. Can someone explain that one to me?

  • [...] Joost and Schulman (who also directed Paranormal Activity 3 and the controversial documentary Catfish) talked about the changes they've made to update the Paranormal Activity franchise — [...]

  • [...] of the bunch upped the camera set-up to a full home security system. The third, which brought in Catfish directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, jumped back to the late '80s and older tech, including [...]

  • Carlee says:

    That psychotic woman deserves every "snicker" or "sneer" the guys gave her. She is mentally unstable and has no life so she created a fake one and now she is embarrassing herself. People like her make me question...well everything.

  • [...] soon discovered that the person he thought he was talking to wasn’t being truthful — also elicited authenticity debates. On the MTV show, Schulman and Max Joseph serve as hosts/stars and travel around the country to [...]

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