Those who have not watched Catfish should be advised that this piece contains key spoilers.
As part of the Australian International Documentary Conference that just took place in Melbourne, ACMI played host to a unique screening of the 2010 documentary, Catfish. What made the screening unique was its “interrupted” nature, whereby the film’s editor, Zac Stuart-Pontier and one of it’s producers, Marc Smerling, repeatedly paused the screening to dissect and discuss key production choices. The experience provided an illuminating look at a film that has grown from a “grassroots” level to become an MTV television series now in its fifth season, undeniably leaving a distinctive footprint on the 21st century cinematic, digital and socio-cultural landscapes.
Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel “Rel” Schulman, Catfish follows Rel’s younger brother, photographer Yaniv “Nev” Schulman, and the correspondence he enters into with 8-year-old art prodigy, Abby. They first interact when Abby sends Nev a painting of one of his photos, and as the youngster begins to send him more and more of her ‘acclaimed’ art work, the 24-year-old New York native gets to know her family, specifically her older sister: Megan. After 9 months of exchanging intimate phone calls, emails, texts, and pictures with Megan, Nev, along with Rel and Henry, decide to visit the family’s hometown of Ishpeming, Michigan, only to discover everything is not as it seemed.
Those who have seen Catfish to its conclusion know that Megan is not the 19-year-old virgin from a small town that Nev believed he was falling for, but instead, a middle-age woman, Angela Wesselman-Pierce, who had concocted as many as 17 fake profiles on Facebook in order to maintain her charade. In print, the facts of the case appear sinister, but what Joost, Schulman, and the rest of the production team are able to manufacture from their found-footage style documentary is an emotional rollercoaster that dips to immense sympathy and sadness for the fake-family mastermind, far more regularly that it ever dabbles on any malicious intentions.
Catfish raises a number of incisive questions about social media, privacy and identity in the era of Facebook and Google, but it also presents some of its own about the ethics of documentary filmmaking: Are the filmmakers exploiting Wesselman-Pierce and taking advantage of a woman who didn’t realize what she was getting into? Stuart-Pontier’s editing repeatedly suggests that Wesselman-Pierce always remained a willing participant in the project, although there is no explicit dialogue with her about the film or what will happen to the footage recorded. Smerling insists that from a very early stage of the ‘in real life’ interactions, Wesselman-Pierce signed all the necessary releases, including one on behalf of Abby. One audience member expressed her discomfort at witnessing the 8-year-old Abby being questioned by Nev without a parent present. This
As a viewer of the unusual tale, I satisfy my own unease on its ethics by contending that the experience at hand was as ‘give and take’ exchange for all parties involved. Yes, Wesselman-Pierce appears incredibly vulnerable in the film’s final act, but her 9-month-long façade led to an incredibly vulnerable and invested Nev. The filmmakers would also contend, as would I, that the film’s final act provides Wesselman-Pierce with a platform to explain her actions. Joost and Schulman indisputably commandeered a uniquely personal experience for both Wesselman-Pierce and Nev, but all is fair in love and war. When explaining his own moral justification for certain avenues of pursuit in the film, Smerling described documentary making as “seduction followed by betrayal… most people don’t know what they’re getting into.” This comment was quickly superseded by his under-the-table remark: “much like Robert Durst” (Smerling also produced the 2015 HBO success, The Jinx, which helped implicate Durst in multiple murders), which drew laughter from the audience.
From the first ‘interruption,’ the screening included the repeated insistence by both Stuart-Pontier and Smerling that the film’s story was “naturally” found. A response they have repeatedly had to use defensively given the large amount of criticism and accusation of fakery and manipulation that the film received. It is easy to fall amongst the crowd that don’t believe the film is a true documentary. There is an element of convenience to many of the scenes included in the film, something underscored by the lack of succinct direction Joost and Schulman approached the scene with. So many, almost too many, moments appear to have little importance at the time they were captured, and yet become quintessential in the telling of the story. Early on, we see Nev send a postcard to his flirtatious pen-pal. Later, at the film’s climax, Nev discovers that exact postcard, uncollected, in the letterbox of the address Meg supposedly (but clearly does not) reside at. Even earlier than this, we see Nev’s first ever phone conversation’s with Abby’s mother, and then with Meg. This early footage has driven many viewers to question why Joost and Schulman were so quick to jump on board to filming, and to label it of interest.
According to editor Stuart-Pontier, Catfish’s classic three act structure “came naturally, but that doesn’t mean [they] didn’t work hard to get there.” Each of these ‘acts’ carry an entirely distinctive tone. The film’s editing subtly elicits vastly contrasting reactions from audiences as they follow Nev on this journey. Reactions vary from anticipation at the prospect of Nev potentially falling in love with Meg; to fear and apprehension during moments that feel straight out a Blair Witch style horror film; and finally, to immense sadness and frustration, once they meet the woman behind the charade. The sadness is particularly poignant and is directed at both Nev and Wesselman-Pierce, but predominately at the lonely woman.
In Catfish’s third act, you get to know Wesselman-Pierce’s family, and for a moment it becomes hard to be angry at her despicable choices. In one confronting scene, she is shown feeding one of her handicapped step-sons. Nev, and audiences alike, bare witness to a symptom of his illness, self-abuse, as he repeatedly hits his head to stimulate himself. It is uncomfortable viewing, but make everyone privy to the real stresses of Angela’s life that consequently led her to create a second, virtual, “Facebook family.” The editing repeatedly builds sympathy for the woman, particularly through each shot of her that captures her longing glances and flattery for Nev, whom she seems entirely devoted to and infatuated with. Despite being the one with the full truth and reality of the story, it is possible that she had fallen even harder for Nev, than he had for the fictional, and perfectly-tailored-to-him, Meg.
There is so much to dissect in saying that Angela was the “true author of this story,” as put forth by Stuart-Pontier. Her great imagination, and almost instinctive nature to lie led her to crafting the world that Nev became enamoured with. As Rel puts it: “she’s really good at these dramatic twists.” Wesselman-Pierce continues to mould the story further once the three men reach Ishpeming. The story changes and expands repeatedly as she shares that she is currently undergoing chemotherapy treatment for uterine cancer, her real daughter Megan is in a rehabilitation centre called Dawn Springs and that she is a family friend of the real girl pictured in the photos she used for Meg’s fake Facebook – all of which are later revealed to be lies. Audiences, and the filmmaking trio, are repeatedly forced to adapt to the unexpected surroundings. “I don’t even know where to begin,” Rel tells Henry as they walk towards Angela’s house, both wary of what other ‘truths’ will unravel.
Smerling and Stuart-Pontier’s commentary even offered great insight into the story’s anchor, Nev. “He doesn’t have a huge ego, he’s even a little aspergy,” notes Snyder, responding to those who question why and how Nev maintains a calm composure throughout the entire period spent with Angela. “He doesn’t react the way most people think you should,” he adds. Whether this is the truth, or just one of the generic responses Smerling has crafted to combat the many, many critics of the film’s authenticity is left to us in the audience to decipher. I myself choose to believe Smerling’s words. Collectively, his description of the real Nev, and the Nev we see on screen, collectively complement each other, not justify one another. Nev’s capacity to remain incredibly composed in his interactions with Angela, particularly in the incredibly intimate scene where she draws him, establishes an atmosphere for audiences that is sombre in tone but tense with frustration. As even Angela notes, you can “read the hurt” in his eyes.
Complementing scenes of Angela coming clean of some of her lies, and placing her struggles and pain out in the open, are flashbacks to earlier moments in the film where Nev first discusses his thoughts on the family: “She must be cool,” Nev says of Angela, “because her kids are cool. Well, at least they are on Facebook.” It becomes ironic in hindsight. The most stomach-wrenching of these flashbacks, however, is a brief shot of Nev insisting he won’t “get hurt” by pursuing the relationship with Meg. The new context for the scene establishes a new lens through which audiences can understand the situation. It’s almost as though Nev has come to accept, from the first ‘in real life’ interaction with Angela that his hurt and pain from the experience is not the priority, but rather it is letting this woman deal with her issues, in a manner in which she feels safe to do so.
Providing further insight into Angela’s state of mind is her husband Vince. Vince is completely oblivious to the double life his wife has been propagating. He believes Nev is Angela’s “primary customer,” commissioning her art and helping her to pursue her love. Now that audiences better understand the depth of the lying, you involuntarily want shake some sense into Vince. How can he not know what is happening in his home? But in a heartbreaking sense, you also don’t want to hurt this incredibly earnest man who wanted to provide his wife the space with which she could pursue her artistic passion, but has consequently given her so much space that it has enabled her to begin this charade. Despite only playing a minor role in the Catfish story, Vince provides perhaps its most important scene. Although it does not directly correlate to the story of Nev and Angela, a monologue he presents to the filmmakers becomes a terrifyingly realistic analogy for the situation, despite him being unaware of it.
“They used to tank cod from Alaska all the way to China. They'd keep them in vats in the ship. By the time the codfish reached China, the flesh was mush and tasteless. So this guy came up with the idea that if you put these cods in these big vats, put some catfish in with them and the catfish will keep the cod agile. And there are those people who are catfish in life. And they keep you on your toes. They keep you guessing, they keep you thinking, they keep you fresh. And I thank god for the catfish because we would be droll, boring and dull if we didn't have somebody nipping at our fin.”
Joost and Schulman’s 2010 debut transformed the discourse surrounding how we interact, in a way only a film about social media in the digital era could. The word ‘catfish,’ previously referred only to the type of fish. It is now included in the Oxford English Dictionary with a seconding meaning: “to lure (someone) into a relationship by adopting a fictional online persona.” What began as a quirky story of potential long-distance love, or at the very least, flirtation, ends on a much more sombre tone. We see Nev opening another package from Angela, this time filled with paintings signed by herself, and we see the immense toll the experience has had on him, perhaps only truly hitting him after he leaves Ishpeming. Rel wants him to talk about it but he’s shared enough with the camera: “I’m not really in the mood to talk about it.”
It seems almost too much of a coincidence that I had only recently watched Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up for the Sight & Sound challenge. Two documentaries, both exploring identity and both emphasising some degree of sound reason in the fraudster’s decision to do so. Wesselman-Pierce shares a lot of characteristics with Close-Up’s protagonist, Ali Sabzian, most noticeably the desire to enact the charade in order to receive validation that they felt they were lacking in their real lives. The immense effort that Joost and Schulman go to in order to depict Wesselman-Pierce in such a light does not always resonate with audiences however. Catfish can leave you angry, it can leave you speechless, and it can leave you sad. Your response is generally in alignment with how much empathy you provide for Wesselman-Pierce. Additional viewings of Catfish only promote this element of the film more and more, but as my experience at ACMI’s ‘interupted’ screening revealed, even with so much of an understanding into Wesselman-Pierce’s life, you will always be left asking why?