Doc or Not, Catfish Is Stranger Than Fiction

What is Catfish? That question is an implicit part of the film's marketing campaign, which, with the tagline, "Don't let anyone tell you what it is," teases a big reveal. The answer depends on whom you ask.

Opening this week and shot on-the-fly by Ariel "Rel" Schulman and Henry Joost, the film chronicles an online relationship that develops between Rel's brother, charismatic twentysomething New York photographer Nev, and a family in Michigan, who, the filmmakers discover mid-filming, aren't who they purport to be. When Catfish premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, the festival's program guide classified it as a documentary.

But a certain segment of the audience—hip to the current trend in quasi-nonfiction (see: Exit Through the Gift Shop, I'm Still Here), wise to the ways of the Web, and wary of being conned—wasn't buying the festival and the filmmakers' assurances that this was not a work of fiction. After the first screening, documentary superstar Morgan Spurlock allegedly approached a member of Team Catfish and said, "That is the best fake documentary I've ever seen." By the final Sundance screening, when a civilian audience member commented during the Q&A that he suspected the film was "really a faux-documentary," the filmmakers were on the defensive. "Oh, so you're saying that my brother is the best actor in the world? And we're the best writers in Hollywood?" responded Rel, with no small hint of annoyed sarcasm. "Thank you!" That was the end of that Q&A.

There's trouble just around the bend, Nev.
There's trouble just around the bend, Nev.

Catfish's directors, their main subject, and others close to the film insist that nothing in the final cut was fabricated, staged, or re-created. "The reason why some people have said parts of the movie are not real," Henry says, "is because it's told in a way that you're not used to documentaries being told—in real-time."

Catfish has no narration and no traditional interviews. Instead, Henry and Rel make ingenious use of the technologies on which Nev's relationships were based—Facebook, YouTube, Google Maps, Gchat—to introduce the characters and provide the bulk of the story's exposition. "We actually went down that [other] road—we shot talking heads, we had voiceover narration at one point," Henry says. "And then we showed it to some filmmaker friends, and they said, 'Guys, you have the footage to edit this thing like a narrative.' That was a huge revelation for us—that we could edit it exactly the way it unfolded in real life."

One of those filmmaker friends was Andrew Jarecki, director of Capturing the Friedmans—another controversial documentary sensation that started as one type of film and became another. "I think the percentage of people that really believe you could make this up is pretty small," says Jarecki, who started working with Henry and Rel in post-production and is credited as an executive producer on the film. "Once you meet the boys, you realize that this is not Banksy—these boys are not the kind of guys that want to make some kind of PR sensation or trick the public."

My experience talking to "the boys" fits with Jarecki's description. They did not strike me as calculating or cynical enough to formulate a major media hoax. I believe them; I also believe that their film's non-fiction status has little to do with why it resonates.

The story of Catfish started in December 2007. Nev, Rel, and Henry were photographers/videographers sharing an office in Manhattan. Nev's photograph of a dance performance had been published in the New York Sun, and one day in December 2007, he received a package with a Michigan postmark containing an impressionistic painting of the photo, with a letter explaining that the painting was the work of a prodigiously talented little girl named Abby. Abby and Nev started up an e-mail friendship, which soon involved Abby's mother, Angela. Nev became Facebook friends with both, and then with Abby's dad, her brother, and a host of their friends and family members, all of whom seemed to be part of a low-key artists' community.

Henry and Rel started casually filming Nev's interactions with this family. "We just thought it was interesting that he was getting into this group of artists," Henry says, "and we thought maybe it would be a nice short film about a photographer mentoring a young painter, and a young painter inspiring a photographer.

"And then Megan entered the picture, and it became a love story."

Two months after Abby initiated contact with Nev, he got an e-mail from Abby's half-sister—a gorgeous, coquettish, but apparently virginal 19-year-old model/dancer named Megan. Over the next six months, Megan and Nev built a friendship—e-mailing, Facebooking, texting, and talking on the phone. Though the two hadn't met, their bond became intimate.

"She started e-mailing me these photos," Nev recalls. "They were very provocative. And she'd be like, 'I just did this photo shoot. What do you think?' And of course, I, uh, approved of the work. And that's when I was like, 'Oh, my God, this girl is really coming on to me.' "

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