Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, two documentary filmmakers from New York, decided in 2010 to make a film charting the burgeoning friendship between Ariel’s brother, Yaniv, and Abby, an eight-year-old artist from Michigan who contacted him through Facebook after she paints a version of a photograph he took. Yaniv begins a relationship with the girl’s older sister Megan, and eventually goes to visit the family after he discovers some disturbing coincidences in information they have given him.
It’s difficult to explain the plot without giving it all away, so here’s your SPOILER warning:
Abby’s mother, Angela, is behind everything. She was the one really painting the pictures, she used the name of her absentee daughter Megan to seduce Yaniv, and created a staggering amount of fake Facebook profiles in an effort to keep her charade going, sometimes conversing between more than 10 of her different personas at any one time to fool the filmmakers. What is even more fascinating than the plot itself, though, is when one begins to explore its veracity. Though billed as a documentary, there’s a lot about Catfish that doesn’t add up.
Firstly, the matter is never addressed as to why the filmmakers decide to start making a film in the first place. If, as they claim, the film were a documentary with no prior planning involved in the story, why would the most interesting story they think to explore be the correspondence between their friend and an eight-year-old on Facebook? Joost has previously stated: “It was really Rel [Ariel] who had the instinct to start filming early on, and he was just waiting to see where it went. It could’ve been about Abby and Nev [Yaniv] meeting up in real life, a cute friendship that comes out of the Internet. That would’ve been a pretty good film, you know?” Would it really have made a good film, though? Even if, as Joost suggested, they only made a ten-minute short, it would have been very much without incident.
There is also the question of how the filmmakers got everything they needed on camera. Scott Hutcheson, a writer for the website Very Aware, points out from his experience making documentaries that the amount of useful footage and exposition they capture is just unrealistic: “the perils of getting everything on camera will drive you insane. In Catfish, absolutely anything that holds any weight in the movie is on camera somehow. Despite running a production company and making another film at the same time as Catfish, they still had time to film Nev almost completely non-stop and at all the perfect moments. So this is either extremely lucky, or really staged”. Joost and Schulman get Angela’s confession, Abby revealing that she didn’t do the paintings and the first phone call with ‘Megan’ all on camera. The odds of them filming at every pivotal moment of the plot are very slim indeed.
The trio has even admitted that some scenes have been recreated, but insisted that only some close-up screenshots of computers were replicated. If this was the case, why bother? Saving a screenshot at the time would have been incredibly simple. Their wording leaves the possibility of fabrication open as well – if only this part was ‘recreated’, there is still the chance that other aspects are entirely fictional. The trio run a website which detailed their travels and activities around the time the film was made, but there is never a mention of any of the events in Catfish. While it’s possible that this was to preserve the originality of the finished work, it also suggests that they didn’t want anybody investigating their process upon completion.
Angela’s seemingly random selection of Aimee Gonzales as the person whose photos she would steal to impersonate her daughter Megan is also suspicious. Gonzales is a model and photographer mainly operating out of New York City: Yaniv is also a photographer based in the area, and they both shoot a lot of dance acts, performances and exhibitions. The idea that these two would never have met, or that Yaniv would not recognize her, loses credence when you realise that they operate in very similar circles.
These are just a few of the questions that arise after watching the film, and the debate over its authenticity is a lengthy one. Even Morgan Spurlock, director of Super Size Me, had his say, telling the directors at one of the film’s initial screenings that it was “the best fake documentary I have ever seen”. So what do you think? Without getting into the finer points of what constitutes a documentary, does Catfish qualify as one or the other?