Sept. 22 2010 10:21 AM

The makers of Catfish try to separate truth from fiction

On the road with Nev Schulman
When it comes to the box office, controversy is often good for a film. That will probably be the case with Catfish, as the debate surrounding the internet-oriented documentary is whether or not the movie's actually real. That's the sort of thing that drives people to the theaters, but in this case, it's a controversy that's not welcomed by the filmmakers, who were surprised when people started wondering out loud if their documentary, which is marketed as a reality thriller, was not, in fact, reality.

“Originally, we had only shown it to friends, and they were thrilled with the story, because they've been hearing about it all along,” co-director Ariel Schulman tells CityBeat. “They know our style of filming each other all the time and just being obsessed about documenting our lives. But when we started showing it to strangers, some people have trouble understanding how this film is possible.”

Nev Schulman, Ariel's brother, is a New York-based photographer. Several months after one of his photos is published in a newspaper, he receives a painting of the same picture made by an 8-year-old girl named Abby from upstate Michigan. It's actually quite good, and Nev strikes up a benign friendship with her, getting to know her, her mother Angela and her sister Megan, via Facebook, IM and the phone. Nineteen-yearold Megan is not an unattractive girl, and it isn't long before virtual heat begins to spark between her and Nev. And from the day the first painting arrived in the mail, all of this is being documented by Ariel and his longtime filmmaking partner, Henry Joost.

Months go by, and Nev and Megan are essentially having a virtual affair, until the night he decides there's something fishy about, well, the whole thing. At this point, he's an integral part of this family's life, and they're an important part of his, but once the seeds of doubt have been planted, he and the two directors fire up Google and decide that something might be rotten in the state of Michigan. But they have no idea what it might be. Who is this family? Why have they reached out to him like this? And if things aren't on the up-and-up, why are they deceiving him in such a personal way? Once Nev's personal reality comes crashing down, the trio rents a car and heads to Michigan. What do they find there? I'm not going to tell you, because I don't want to spoil it, but it certainly isn't what they—and probably you, the audience—expect.

I know. That sounds like some handheld Blair Witch business. But Catfish is heartbreaking and emotional and, above all, human. Still, in light of the recent Joaquin Phoenix meltdown-hoax I'm Right Here and Banksy's Exit Through the Gift Shop, the filmmakers are grappling with queries about whether the narrative has been massaged—or even scripted.

“Hindsight is 20/20, but there was more to prove its veracity than to show holes,” Joost says. “There was so much going on. There was just so much wonderful stuff happening, and there was plenty of evidence, some that's in and some that's not in the film, to convince us along the way.”

It's a fascinating discussion, because if Catfish isn't on the up-and-up, in some ways it's even more ingenious. The audience for this film will likely be tech-savvy and cynical, and that may feed into the debate.

“I think some of it has to do with people's insecurities,” Joost says. “They think, Well, this could never happen to me. I see this guy on screen who seems to be a smart, normal person, so how could he get wrapped into something like this? But the truth is that if you really want something to be true, you're willing to overlook a lot of these warning signs.”

If Catfish is false, it's as brilliant a deception as the one that takes place in the movie.

If it's real, it's a moving portrait of humanity. Based on far too much thought and my conversation with Schulman and Joost, I'm personally convinced that Catfish is legit. As near as I can tell, they feel the same way.

“It's frustrating to be reading about this debate when I know that there is no debate,” Joost says. “We know what the answer is. I guess I appreciate it as kind of a byproduct of the story, and I understand how it fits into the theme and the recent trend of fake documentaries. But this is not one of those movies. I would prefer if people just focused on the story. But we're getting used to it.”

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