Nev Schulman meets Megan Faccio on the internet. She writes him songs, he sends her compliments. They seem to "connect". Pretty soon the texting turns to sexting. Nev starts to talk about what it would mean to make a relationship work with someone who lives out of state. The infatuation goes beyond Megan. Nev is friends with her family and her friends. He thinks they're all pretty awesome. But somehow, while he speaks to them on the phone, they never get to meet. And then the scales fall away. It looks like those songs she wrote were taken from Youtube. When he drives out to Megan's house, it's unoccupied. And when he shows out at Megan's mum Angela's house, it's clear that the poor woman has been running a ring of fake IDs on Facebook and conducting a fake cyber-love affair with Nev out of sheer frustration and loneliness. Far from being a cute twentysomething, Angela is a middle-aged mother with two severely handicapped children and a life of limited possibilities. Her fantasies are understandable, but Nev is a real person with real feelings who was led on. Or was he? After all, he is a documentary film-maker. He chose to share the most intimate details of his relationship with the camera even when he apparently thought it was real. And when he realised it was fake, he carried on filming. He and his friends created a sting, and sure, they were gentle with Angela, but not so gentle as to let her off the hook completely, because then there would be no film.
So, this film raises questions about identity and personal boundaries beyond those that the film-makers think they are posing. Most simply it poses the question about how we can trust personae that we meet on line. I think that's not particularly original. But it does show how quickly a person can cross the line from selective editing of a Facebook profile (not posting those pictures where we don't look our best) to wholesale fabrication. Second, CATFISH poses a question about how unboundaried we have all become. From the girl who posted so many pictures on line that Angela could easily steal her identity, to Nev, who thought nothing about letting a girl into his emotions that he'd never met, to the film-makers, Nev and Angela, who presumably feel comfortable exposing all this material for the sake of making a film. In other words, what I'm saying here is that while I think Angela has problems, she's just a case in extremis of what all of us who use Facebook and Twitter and Blog experience - that erosion of personal boundaries and personal privacy that we trade for a wider group of virtual friends.
CATFISH is, then, a provocative documentary and for all its questionable morality - entrapping a woman who clearly needs help - and pimping out one's own emotional life for the sake of a movie - let alone the (I think scurrilous charges) that the entire thing (as opposed to maybe certain scenes) were set up - it remains an important piece of work. It's not a great film in terms of its shooting style or structure - there were definitely passages where I got bored waiting for the inevitable unmasking - but it prompted so much discussion that it has become, by virtue of its content, a must-see film.
CATFISH played Sundance and London 2010 and opened in the US and Canada in September. It is currently on release in the UK and the Netherlands.