***Warning: In-Depth Spoilers of Catfish to follow***
Since its premiere at Sundance, the documentary Catfish has had more than its share of controversy. Many critics, bloggers and industry types have loudly challenged the filmmakers’ ethical stance towards their subjects and the credibility of their document (on occasion citing the film to be, if not liberally fabricated, then an outright hoax). Having had some time to mull over the fine points of the debate and my own distilled impressions of the experience, I wish to defend the documentary against what I consider to be largely baseless accusations of its lack of authenticity. I do not claim to know the whole story and if any undiscovered evidence one way or the other should grace the comment thread I would welcome any revision to my opinions, but as it stands Catfish, though fortuitous, appears sufficiently plausible.
With the cover my ass clause out of the way, let’s proceed.
First, I dismiss wholesale the claim that everything in Catfish is faked, my mind cannot process how that could even be possible, and in particular, how mentally handicapped children would be used as props in such a deceit (forget ethics, what about commonsense?). This rebuttal is in response to the claims that Nev and the filmmakers (hitherto known as ‘the protagonists’) covered-up their foreknowledge of the peculiarities of the online encounters; whether they knew that Abby, Meghan and Angela were all manifestations of the same person or knew in vaguer terms that something was fishy earlier than the Colorado visit, it becomes an accusation of entrapment and exploitation for what transpires in Michigan. I believe the integral part of the official story in Catfish to be true: until Colorado, the protagonists were unaware of any deception. For me their version of the story hinges on the authenticity of one scene: the discovery that Meghan did not perform the songs she claimed to. If some of the interviews of Nev were staged at the beginning because of lack of footage that, to me, is excusable and no different than what a lot of documentaries engage in. If the song scene is genuine and place-time specific in Colorado before deciding to surprise visit ‘Meghan’ in Michigan then everything that follows has a strong probability of being authentic.
My confidence in the official story is fueled by a variety of considerations: first, the burden of proof trumps biases of perception and, as in a court of law where one is innocent until proven guilty, the accusations need to rise above circumstantial evidence of which the bulk of what I have read online appears to be. Second, the situations, when considered in context, are plausible and it’s only when you think of them anecdotally that it becomes harder to accept. Lastly, the film passes my Turing Test of believability: the detective work of reading the minutiae of facial and body language and the tacit interactions captured on camera provided me no indication that the ‘performances’ in the film were anything but genuine.
Let’s start with the obvious: as constructs all documentaries lie. Compare the span of time that is alleged to be marked in Catfish (eight months) to that of the running time of the documentary, clearly the narrative insinuated in the movie is a mere anecdote to the experience as it was lived. Even if the protagonists were genuinely naïve prior to the Colorado revelations, the way the story is conflated in the documentary (the music underscoring the absurdity, how quickly we jump from introductions to first phone call to affectations of love) all create a quick impression for the viewer that unintentionally makes their gullibility seem all the more implausible than had it transpired over months of habitual development. If you throw a frog in a boiling pot it will jump out, but keep it in the pot while gradually increasing the temperature and it will ignore the danger to its own peril; were the protagonists victims of the same slow boil? In order to discredit the official version of the story the proof required needs to go beyond the surface impression of the documentary and appreciate that it is quite plausible that the eight months of online discussion with Nev was one thread among many in their seemingly busy lives. Life, unfortunately, comes without prescient framing devices.
Many of those disputing the official story mistakenly point to the marketing campaign as proof of the malicious nature of the filmmakers and to the feigned sincerity of their film. Time and again I have read that the decision to frame the movie as a ‘reality thriller’ (building the Angela mystery component as some kind of predator in waiting) trivializes the human drama of the last forty minutes and discredits any notion of the cautiously sympathetic onscreen personas of the protagonists. But, as Nev puts it in the Screenrant interview:
When we saw the marketing strategy, we were definitely shocked. And I, at least for me, I was upset. I didn’t like the idea of this story, this thing that happened to me, being sensationalized. It felt like there was enough of an experience that people would see it and have a reaction. And I didn’t want to mislead them into seeing it for some other reason. But what I started to understand is that it’s hard to get people to spend hard-earned money to see something instead of something else if they don’t have any reason to. And you can’t just tell someone, “See it, it’s good”.
In what alternate reality could these lightweight filmmakers dictate the terms of the marketing campaign when their documentary had been purchased by corporate giants, Universal Pictures and, for Canadian distribution, Alliance Atlantis? However callous the marketing campaign may be, it has little to do with Nev and the filmmakers and more to do with those acquiring it for distribution wishing to maximize profits. On a side note, I probably would not have seen this film were it not for the clever marketing strategy they used, and the end result of my experience was anything but callous disdain for the subjects. Just as the documentary is a conflation of events into a quasi-fictional narrative, the marketing campaign is itself yet another layer of fiction added by a third party.
The belief in a deliberate cover-up by the filmmakers comes chiefly from the misperception that the film was a considered documentary from frame one of what we see onscreen. The gotcha argument seems to be that any filmmaker engaging in this project would have thoroughly researched the blossoming online romance between Nev and Meghan long before it is claimed in the movie. That would be a valid point were it not extraneously built upon unfounded premises. According to the less glamorous official story, the footage that comprises Catfish was not a considered documentary until the Colorado incident, some eight months in. So what was their reason for filming Nev then? Aside from being the brother of one of the filmmakers and photogenic to boot, they have an established history (see Red Bucket Films) of being part of a circle of filmmaking friends that make good use of their HD cameras filming each other incessantly. In the Screenrant interview they talk about it as a collective culture:
Among the 15 of us, or however many there are, we just do this all the time and we mostly just share it with each other. And it’s kind of like filmmaking practice in a way. It’s kind of like doing, you know, like a pick-up basketball game as opposed to the championship. It’s just like fun. We do it for fun.
Fun? Sounds suspicious. Indeed, in the very first scene of the documentary Nev addresses the fact that the footage being shot is extraneous, he being less interesting than the real subject, ‘Abby’. The impression for the viewer is that what we are seeing is something more defined than they are letting on. In the Film School rejects interview they refer to this footage more as diary sketches than documentary footage, Abby being a natural subject to be drawn to considering there was the novelty of a pint-size artist and the event of opening boxes of her latest paintings. And what, in fact, is the footage prior to Colorado, is it really a treasure trove of remarkably implausible moments? Considering that all or most of the online footage is post-production, what you have is approximately two or three phone calls, two or three scenes of Nev opening boxes, him sending the postcard (by that point the Colorado trip was established) and a couple of interviews of Nev explaining the situation and his feelings for Meghan.
The residual gotcha arguments continue to pile up. The most telling of these is the accusation that tech-savvy, twenty-something hipsters in this day and age would have easily saw through Angela’s ruse – why hadn’t Nev tried a basic google search long before the Colorado tip-off? The ‘hipster’ moniker creeps up everywhere in reviews. From what I am able to piece together about Nev and the filmmakers from the limited amount time they are onscreen, ‘hipster’ is not exactly what I would call them: in what way do they embody and promote a sense of in-the-know pop-cultural zeitgeist? Hipster is typically used as a derogatory term. Tech-savvy, sure. But as someone trained as an information specialist, I know that your average university student searching online does not use boolean operators, and rarely uses advanced features of any kind, this irrespective of being ‘savvy’ in a particular technology.
According to this Salon article, Nev admits to googling Abby’s family early on, and having found nothing he just assumed that their rural locale had something to do with it, uneventfully shrugging it off. This to me sounds like a credible ‘search’ and it is only because of the story that follows and the context of it within a documentary is he held accountable to a level that most of us would not sustain in our own lives. In the ether of the daily grind there are a thousand non-descript distractions and miscues that are edited out of our ‘narratives’ and aside from the predatory class of over-achievers the bulk of people are not nearly as clever and forward-thinking in unrehearsed life as our fiction-saturated imaginations would lead us to believe. Nev, prior to being a festival circuit celebrity wasn’t anyone particularly special when Angela (as Abby) first contacted him, it wasn’t immediately intimate, it developed over months of casual interaction, and he was 23 years old. Also, in this particular case, Nev had an abundance of evidence on the surface to support his conviction that Meghan was real, undercutting any real urgency to go that extra step in his google pursuits. Is it so naïve to expect that one person had not created ten fictional characters on a facebook page to have them all interact with one another, and put on different voices on the phone? Either that is an exceptional scenario, which few of us would prepare for, or all of us right now should be cross-referencing every online acquaintance we make for fear of the Angela epidemic.
On the one hand, I understand the skepticism towards the official story, the protagonists do come off as murderers with air-tight alibis: events happen conveniently, the music discovery is in Colorado which is place-time specific, the sending of the postcard establishes chronology. If this is deceit, it is a level of sophistication that requires one to sit back in awe. Presupposing the first half is by design, and they had complete authorial control over how they wished to portray their innocence, it seems excessive the lengths that are documented to which they are willing to blur the line and keep up the pretense of verisimilitude. If they are covering their tracks why do you hear one of them joking about Angela probably being a dude within the edited version of the documentary? If they wanted to make their position more credible, why didn’t they explicitly mention in the documentary that Nev had googled Abby’s family? Another unspoken bit of realism is at the farm, when the driver decides to back into the driveway. It’s not explained in the film why he chose to reverse (negating any clear logic of it being staged for the hoax) only in interviews do we find out that the driver choose to back in first because he was afraid that if the shit hits the fan they could make a clean getaway. Also, the postcard has a return to sender stamp that makes sense only in a rural location (the protagonists are born and bred city slickers, and my understanding is that return to sender requests in New York require a residing individual to make the request, not the mail system). The on-camera revelation that Meghan did not perform the songs she claimed to appear on the surface to be unusually fortuitous and likely staged, but going by the logic of the official story, why on earth wouldn’t they be filming at that moment? Irrespective of any foul play, the online romance finally has something cinematic to work with as Meghan’s music becomes an audible conduit of their infatuation for one another. If this was by design, give them credit, it’s the most believable scenario of having cameras rolling one could conceive of.
In his review, A.O. Scott of The New York Times chastises Nev and the filmmakers (“shame on them”) for the perceived exploitation of Angela in the movie. If Catfish is only a cautionary tale or ‘reality thriller’ then I can see the ethical quandary where suffering outweighs the purpose, but what I took from the film was far more than that. I believe Angela expresses herself quite admirably considering the circumstances. The accusations that the filmmakers were bullying this defenseless mentally ill woman, is to me, somewhat presumptuous and a bit insulting in its own right considering that what is onscreen is Angela in her own words acknowledging her mistakes and explaining herself (as you would hope for from any responsible adult). In the 20/20 interview which Angela partook of voluntarily she states quite articulately that she was at fault for the deceit (“I couldn’t apologize enough”). Was 20/20 exploiting Angela too by giving her an opportunity to make her case?
Permit me this radical caveat in closing. As a construct, documentaries lie, however our actual experience of documentaries occur not as whole commodities but in moment-by-moment interactions with what is onscreen. Despite the construct, outside of narrative and the pull of an edited choice, there are truths, incidental and undeclared, that exist like bubbles rising to the surface. Such micro-effects cross-referenced with your own lived-in cache of experiences are not bound by narrative but by recognition of behavior. Narrative, in this case, presumes continuity like a nicely paved road over the images that exist, so that you cannot respond to them without this blockade intruding. The fallacy is in this notion of continuity, as if there is a fixed narrative in a split second of film that can be forever linked to authorial intent. Each moment contains its own possibilities for recognition, if there is pavement, its cracked, and no more cracked than in the last forty minutes of Catfish which blossoms with these small moments, which, depending on your proclivity, becomes a choose your own adventure for how the film resolves itself.
What I found in the interviews of Angela were not brow-beating ridicule from a camera-wielding Other but an unrehearsed, intimate and true expression of one person’s deepest sorrow. Loneliness is a universal emotion, and rather then see Angela as this carnival attraction I saw her as a bona-fide human being; her confessions may have made me wince but it came from a place of familiarity more than some imagined transgression. When Nev was sitting for her drawing, nothing about that scene felt devious or inauthentic to me. Far from the shit-eating grin of a sinister hipster that some have been describing in their reviews, I see Nev as an uncomfortable, young adult caught up in something he was not prepared to experience. In his book, Blink!, Malcolm Gladwell spoke of the persistence of snap judgment in our interpretation of the world around us, contrary to our best presumptions of impartiality. Maybe, instead of elaborately conceived deceptions, it is these micro-burst biases of perception that cause such diverging viewpoints on what took place in Catfish. It could be the slightest trigger: the all-too-bright glint of Nev’s teeth, an unspoken ‘hipster’ swagger or glimpse of shower-room chauvinism in the sexting scene.
I mean, really, would this face lie?
Master of War