Catfish—a documentary, spun as a mystery/thriller, about a cross-country romantic relationship built on Facebook—generated lots of buzz, but also criticism over its honesty, exploitative nature, and general, well, fishiness. 20/20 investigated, interviewing the stars and filmmakers. (Spoilers ahead.)
Catfish is the story of 24-year-old New York photographer Nev Schulman, who begins an online friendship with an 8-year-old Michigan artist named Abby after she painted one of his published photographs. He sends her more photos which she turns into more paintings. Over the next few months, Nev eventually befriends her entire family and some of her friends—her mother Angela, her brother Alex, her babysitter Joelle, etc.—on Facebook, including Abby's attractive 19-year-old half-sister Megan, with whom he embarks on a long-distance romantic relationship. Nev's brother Ariel and friend Henry Joost—both filmmakers—decide to document this love affair. But once they realize that something is amiss with this family, the men all travel out to Michigan to confront Megan. What they discover is that while Abby is really Angela's daughter, she is not the painter—Angela is. Also, there is no Megan. She, along with the other cast of over 20 characters have been meticulously created by Angela, stealing photos and profiles of other Facebook members. In the film, Angela says that these personalities are all fragments of her own personality, utilized as a way to escape from her own disappointing and stressful life, most of which involves being caretaker to her severely disabled twin stepsons.
That part is all real. But what critics have questioned is the authenticity of Nev's feelings for the fictional Megan, suggesting that he—along with Ariel and Henry—knew all along that the profile was fake, and that he was never really in love with Megan, but rather, led her on in order to make a better film. As Kyle Buchanan points out in an article for Movieline (and again on 20/20), the "shit-eating grins" on the filmmakers' faces when confronting Angela just didn't seem right, especially when Nev should've been hurt or angry after discovering such a deception. For their part, the men are very defensive about their film, to the point of suspicion.
And another thing: What kind of documentary filmmakers don't do a little bit of background research on their subjects? And who doesn't do a simple Google search on a person when you're considering entering into a serious relationship with him/her? That kind of quasi-stalking is almost standard dating protocol in this information age. Nev, Ariel, and Henry purportedly failed to do any of this before flying out to Michigan.
So the question remains: Who is exploiting whom? Did Angela manipulate and toy with the emotions of a young man? Or did the filmmakers manipulate and toy with the audience for knowingly—yet not admitting to—exploiting a mentally ill woman? (Angela has since revealed that she has been diagnosed as schizophrenic.) One film critic for the New York Times has obviously chosen a side in the debate, saying about the filmmakers, "Shame on them, if that would mean anything to them."
One insider account suggests that Angela had, indeed, felt exploited:
Angela initially was on board with promoting the movie, and then changed her mind and attempted to sue them. I do not know the nature of her proposed charges (or, again, if this is even true), but becoming angry after uncovering deceit and wanting to take action seems a much more human response than anything Nev does the entire time he's on screen.
But it would seem now that Angela has squashed any beef she had with the guys—however, it is unknown if a deal involving profits from the film has swayed her—telling 20/20 (in her only interview regarding the film) that she does not feel exploited.
Two people do feel exploited though. The first is Angela's 21-year-old daughter Megan, with whom she does not have a relationship. She did contact briefly her to let her know about the film, and Megan was understandably unhappy. The other victim in all of this is Aimee Gonzales, the woman whose photos were used by Angela to create the fake Megan. Although Aimee's name is revealed in the epilogue of Catfish, she is never shown in the film. However, 20/20 revealed that she actually was interviewed for the documentary after the filmmakers tricked her into flying to New York under false pretenses, only to later confront her with Angela's story, so that they could get her reaction on camera.
Why'd this footage end up on the cutting-room floor? Maybe because it made them appear to be deceptive — which wouldn't be a good thing in a film about revealing the truth.
Does Sundance Sensation Catfish Have a Truth Problem? [Movieline]
The World Where You Aren't What You Post [NY Times]