LOS ANGELES — What if you met someone online and later found she wasn’t whom she appeared to be? And what if the person she didn’t appear to be turned out to be someone else entirely?
That situation — with its attendant moral questions, narrative challenges, and headache-inducing implications — is at the heart of “Catfish,” a social-media meditation and mystery from first-time filmmakers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman.
The movie, which caused a sensation at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and is being released by the genre label Rogue Pictures, could become a touchstone for the Facebook age. And it seems certain to stir passionate discussion about the line between fact and fiction: Although its makers have strenuously defended the film as a documentary, skeptics question whether events so remarkable can also be truthful.
On the surface, “Catfish” follows a familiar arc, that of an infatuated young man and his crush. New York photographer Nev Schulman — a charismatic, slightly goofy 24-year-old who is also the brother of director Ariel — is contacted out of the blue by a woman from Michigan. Her daughter, an 8-year-old art prodigy named Abby, saw a picture that Nev had taken for the New York Sun and was inspired to paint a portrait based on the photo. Intrigued and impressed with her painting, the wide-eyed Nev responds appreciatively.
Soon more artwork begins to arrive in the mail, and Nev starts to learn more about Abby. She is a young girl with artistic chops, but more important for Nev, she has a 19-year-old sister named Megan. Before long, Nev gets to know Megan too and falls for her. For eight months they communicate via e-mail, text message, Facebook and phone (but never meet).
To spell out “Catfish” in too much detail would be to spoil the pleasure of its payoff. But in short, Nev — goaded by his brother and Joost — decides to track down Megan. The trio set out for Colorado, where Megan will be visiting a music festival. Their journey, however, soon detours to Michigan, where Megan and her family live.
What the young men find when they arrive is startling not because it is lurid but because it is raw, unfiltered humanity. In following Megan to where, and who, she really is, “Catfish” morphs into something entirely unexpected: a tearjerker.
“The easy thing to do would have been to turn away. That’s what most people would have done, at many different points,” said Ariel Schulman. “But we kept coming back to one argument: ‘If we turn back we’ll never get to the bottom of it.’”
If the movie evokes the zigzagging 2004 child-molestation film “Capturing the Friedmans,” it’s for good reason. “Catfish” was produced, edited and godfathered by Andrew Jarecki, director of “Friedmans,” a documentary that was nominated for an Academy Award but also criticized for what some saw as selective or manipulative editing.
Jarecki came on board after being sent DVD footage by Bob Pittman, the former AOL chief who is a mutual acquaintance of Jarecki and the “Catfish” directors. “There are a lot of interesting things that happen to the boys, but we knew that if we didn’t give it heart it would just be social voyeurism,” Jarecki said of his approach to editing and producing “Catfish.”
The film has much to say about the human psyche and its ability to hold fast to ideas it knows to be wrong. “What Nev’s story does is speak to the idea that if you want something to be true badly enough, you’ll overlook a lot of red flags,” Joost said.
Joost said while he and Nev’s brother did express skepticism at times (not seen on camera), some clues eluded even him. In any case, he said, Nev was eager to push forward. And while many viewers might like to think they would not be as susceptible to duplicity as the pathologically enthusiastic photographer, Nev disputes that.
“If someone would come up to me and say it wouldn’t happen to them, I would say, ‘Bet you’re wrong,’” Nev Schulman said. “If you got a message from someone saying, ‘I think you’re the best,’ you’d be willing to start believing, even as things started to get a little weird.”
Amid its dramatic turns, “Catfish” also delivers a cautionary critique about technology. Although social media don’t inevitably lead to emotional manipulation, the filmmakers argue, it can facilitate it. “We all came away with a very complicated feeling about the Internet,” Ariel Schulman said. “If you can create an identity more quickly than ever, that identity can also come crashing down a lot quicker than before.”
From the moment “Catfish” first screened at Sundance in January, Joost and Schulman have been faced with questions about the veracity of the events in the film.
At one showing at the Utah festival, the filmmakers responded defensively to a question about their methods and the film’s truthfulness. Blog posts on Movieline and other outlets followed, asking if “Catfish” had a “truth problem.” In essence, skeptics question whether the directors actually knew much more about the object of Nev’s affection while filming — but withheld critical footage from the final cut for the sake of drama and suspense.
Jarecki acknowledges that choices were made in the editing room. “We were conscious of revealing the events of the movie in the most dramatic way possible,” the producer said. But he contended that “Catfish” was no different from any other documentary film — it just happens to be a better story. “There’s a feeling that if events are so extraordinary (then) they must be manufactured. It’s understandable that people feel that way, but it’s simply not the case here.”
Whether general audiences care about the film’s honesty is itself an open question. Film historian David Thomson, who has not seen “Catfish,” said that generally, the question of truth-in-documentary has become less relevant for younger audiences and filmmakers — much to his dismay.
“Does it matter how much of something is true? I think it does,” he said. “But the question is if anyone cares. We live in an age of supposedly true stories that are shocking but totally concocted. And we need to be ready for more enormously persuasive and credible documentaries of things that didn’t occur.”
As more people see “Catfish,” the debate is likely to intensify.
“They say all publicity is good. But for us there is no debate on this point” of the film’s authenticity, Joost said. “This has been a lesson in how things spread in a communal environment like a festival. With one question, the discussion can change overnight. Which is kind of like the Internet.”
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