From the “truth is stranger than fiction” file comes Catfish, a documentary about three New York artists (Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman, and Schulman’s brother Nev) who learn that the family of fans they’ve been talking to online may not be who they say they are. Nev in particular is flattered by the attention from one pretty woman, until his colleagues do a little research and discover that a lot of the information they’ve been getting from her and the rest of their e-mail pals is awfully hard to confirm. So the trio decides to launch an investigation, initially just for fun—though it becomes less fun as they get closer to the truth.
Catfish unfolds more or less as it happens, day-by-day and scene-by-scene—all linked together by Google Maps animation, YouTube clips, GPS instructions, IM exchanges, and other reminders of a world in which we’re simultaneously more connected and disconnected than ever. The big question is whether the action in the movie happened exactly as Joost and the Schulmans say it did. Were these guys really making a movie about a virtual relationship when they suddenly stumbled on some discrepancies in their subjects’ story, or were they suspicious long before anyone yelled “Action?” That bit of fudging matters inasmuch as it raises concerns over whether there’s an element of conscious exploitation at work once the filmmakers make the decision to expose what may be a harmless hoax.
Still, it’s hard to argue with the results or the way this movie is constructed; Catfish is absolutely riveting, and even nerve-wracking as Joost and the Schulmans get progressively closer to learning more about their “friends.” What they find is partly what viewers will expect, but partly not, and it’s to the movie’s credit that its protagonists don’t just debunk and run; they stick around long enough to learn more about what’s really going on, and why. What emerges is a tense, more-than-a-little-disturbing study of the relationship between artists and their fans (and between virtual friendships and real relationships), not-so-neatly summed up by the anecdote that provides the movie’s title. When we hear about how catfish are employed to help keep cod fresh, the story initially sounds self-serving: a metaphor for how artists need to be nipped. Then again, in the dynamic between artist and fan, who’s really the catfish?