One of the many changes which the Internet has brought into our lives is that it is remarkably easy to masquerade as something we're not. It's always been possible, of course. Pretence is an element in some of the earliest human stories. According to the Bible, deception became part of human experience back in the Garden of Eden, when the serpent persuaded Eve that he had her best interests at heart. He was the first in a long, long line of tricksters, impostors and con artists.

Yet until we started spending significant amounts of time in the online world, it generally required perpetrators to be quite daring since it usually involved face-to-face encounters. In a world of social networking profiles and cyber-relationships, however, it is the work of moments to invent for ourselves an identity that may have little or no basis in reality.

The Truth Will Set You Free

Catfish is the story of a relationship which began online, and which turned out to be built on a web of lies and fabrications. It's a familiar story from the online world, but it's rare that it is documented in this way. This one was captured on film because it centres on Yaniv 'Nev' Shulman, a photographer from New York who also makes films with his brother Ariel and a friend, Henry Joost. Nev claims that they are always filming each other doing mundane things, which is how this particular story came to be filmed in such detail from very early on.

Nev had one of his pictures of a dancer published in the New York Sun in August 2007. Three months later, he received a painting of the photograph in the post, apparently the work of an eight-year-old called Abby. As a result, a friendship developed via email and then Facebook. Nev would send one of his photographs and Abby would send her painting of it. Given her prodigious talent, it was natural for Ariel and Henry to take an interest in documenting something of this from Nev's end. After a time, they felt that it would be worth making a film of what was happening.

At the very start of the film, Nev claims that Abby should be the sole subject of the documentary, and he shouldn't be part of it at all. "I don't think I'm that interesting", he protests. Does he really mean this, given that he and his friends are always filming trivial aspects of each other's lives? Or is this a classic example of misdirection, designed to make us think that he is a reluctant participant in what unfolds? The problem with this story is that it is presented as a documentary, and yet it all seems so unlikely that it's difficult to ignore the possibility that it may all be staged. This possibility is reinforced by a comment made by Abby's father, Vince, at the very end of the film. He describes how live cod were transported from Alaska to China in large vats. But by the time they arrived, "the flesh was mush and tasteless". Someone came up with the idea of putting some catfish into the vats to keep the cod agile. Vince reflects:

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'd be droll, boring and dull if we didn't have somebody nipping at our fin.

The question is, who is the real catfish in this film: is it Abby's family or is it the people making the film?

The online friendship with Abby pulls in other members of her family almost immediately. Nev is rightly insistent that their communication should take place with the full knowledge of Abby's parents. Before long, Nev is also communicating regularly with Abby's mother, Angela Wesselman, and increasingly with older sister Megan. They appear to be a tight-knit and talented family, and Nev forms the impression that Angela is a great mother. "She must be awesome", he reasons, "because the kids are pretty awesome – at least from Facebook." Abby seems to be something of a celebrity in her home town in Michingan. Although packages of Abby's paintings arrive every few weeks, Angela tells Nev that many are sold to local collectors and that they plan to open a gallery just for her work.

An online romance develops between Nev and Megan who, judging by her Facebook profile, is intelligent, creative and beautiful. Nev is smitten with her:

She works as a vet so she likes animals a lot. I like animals. I'm not a crazy animal lover, but I do like animals. She's also a musician. I think she plays the cello. Maybe also the guitar, and she sings. I'm not really a musician, but I guess you could say we have a similarity there, as I ... whatever. She's a dancer; she takes ballet ... she does belly dancing. Again, not that I do either of those, but dance is a big part of my life. I mean, yeah I guess I don't know that much about her. Yet.

Megan and Angela start recording songs for Nev, with the help of Megan's brother Alex. Nev and Rel wonder if one track is a cover version or an original composition, so they search online and quickly find another version. "You can't hold it against her", argues Rel. "She didn't say, 'Hey, I wrote this song.'" Nev agrees: "It doesn't matter; she's still young." But then they find the "exact same recording" and the first seed of suspicion begins to take root. Nev is disturbed that Angela "responded to a number of compliments that I gave her about the song and how much I liked it, and it's not even her singing. It's just a recording of someone else's." More googling soon turns up a Youtube video which is clearly the very same recording of another song which Megan and Angela had claimed was theirs. Now Nev is getting worried: "They are complete psychopaths. I've probably been chatting with a guy this whole time."

In their ensuing discussions, Henry is adamant that they should try to get to the bottom of what's going on, while Nev insists that he doesn't want any more to do with the family. Again, Nev's reluctance may simply be a device to make us trust him and his perspectives more than we otherwise would, to make us believe that these young film-makers are telling us the truth. Other questions now, finally, become obvious to the trio: Why has Nev never spoken to Abby herself? Why has no one heard of her if she is such a gifted eight-year-old who is selling paintings and opening a gallery? Nev and Rel search online for the gallery and soon find the building that appeared in one of Angela's photos on a real estate agent's site. It's still for sale. Nev finally wonders how he could have been so gullible. Significantly, the music playing at this point is from The Truman Show.

They eventually decide to drive to Michigan to pay the family a surprise visit and drive past the farm which Megan supposedly owns in the early hours of morning. They look in the mailbox and find postcards which Nev had sent to Megan. Nev remarks, "What surprises me the most is that, to go to the trouble to lie as elaborately as they have, for her not to just drive here and pick up the mail seems crazy doesn't it?" He wonders how Megan could be so lazy, but Rel points out that Megan's family are "so lazy they fooled you for eight months. That's pretty good." "They didn't fool me", Nev retorts. "They just told me things and I never cared to question it."

In the morning they find Angela's house and introduce themselves. She is nothing like they expected, and nor is her family. Megan is mysteriously absent; Abby can't even remember what she looks like. And Abby herself is not quite the prodigy Nev had believed. While we as viewers have expected the Wesselmans to be somewhat different from the photographs Nev has seen online, it is still uncomfortable to discover how significant the discrepancy is. The question facing the three men now is, how should they respond to this new situation? Henry doesn't want to embarrass Angela or her family. "It's not malicious. It's just sad", he says. Nev agrees, saying, "We're not here to hurt, we're here to help." Rel just wants to "shake the truth out of her".

The question of whether or not this is a genuine documentary or something which masquerades as one is itself part of the issue which the film explores. The point is that we simply cannot know whether what we are being told is true or a complete fabrication. While many of us restrict our Facebook friends to those people we really know, there are plenty of people who become 'friends' with people they've only met online. Some other social networking sites, such a Twitter, are much more open and we don't really have much of a clue about the true identity of someone whose tweets we're following.

Trust is one side of the equation, and if we're not sure who to trust then we need to exercise due caution. The other side of the equation is what drives people to invent a new identity. Nev finally gently confronts Angela with his conclusions, and discusses the relationship with her. He reflects that, "It was an amazing correspondence ... a real friendship that I was also looking for myself." Angela confesses, "I didn't want to lose the friendship, and there were times when I felt I was really overstepping and I tried to pull it back", but it was giving her something she was lacking in her life. The trouble is, a friendship built on lies is not a real friendship, but Angela could convince herself that it meant something. She talks about the relationship with Nev opening up other parts of life to her, and admits that she always wanted to be a professional dancer, but was too concerned with having a good time. "A lot of the personalities that came out were just fragments of myself", she observes. "Fragments of things I used to be, wanted to be, never could be. You know, when I met [Vince's severely disabled sons from a previous marriage], I knew I was making a sacrifice with my life, but I didn't count the cost of things that I was gonna be giving up and sort of resigning for the rest of my life. And this year when I resigned my career, I don't know, it's like I gave up a lot of myself. And I don't know most days who I am."

This is the core of the problem. She has an identity crisis. Angela's life has taken turns which have brought regrets and difficulties, and left her feeling that her life amounts to nothing. She is so discontented with her true identity and situation that she has wantonly manufactured new ones. While the rational part of her brain clearly knew that this invention really meant nothing, the emotional part of her brain was getting the attention and affirmation that she craved. Every positive communication from Nev gave her an emotional hit: made her feel like she was somebody, that she mattered. She simply wanted to keep hold of that feeling rather than be plunged back into the frustration and tedium of an unremarkable life and the challenges of caring for the two boys.

It is clearly quite possible to have meaningful communication with someone online, and even to form genuine friendships, at some level, with people we've only met virtually. But such communication and friendships are only part of what we need. God created human beings in his image; we reflect something of his nature. Part of this is that we are profoundly relational beings; without meaningful relationships we wither away to a shadow of what we should be. Loneliness is one of the worst blights of the modern technological society. But because we are constantly bombarded by media representations of what the good life should be, many of us bear a profound sense of inadequacy. The world is apparently full of beautiful people, but we're not. The world is apparently full of people who are feted because of their talent, but ours is mediocre. The world is apparently full of life-enhancing possibilities, yet ours is so constrained, so full of pain and frustration and missed oportunities. We find ourselves longing to be something that we're not.

The trouble is that if we try to build our lives and relationships on foundations which are not true, we are setting ourselves up for even greater disappointment. Another aspect of being made in God's image is that, ultimately, we need things to be true. Like Nev, Rel and Henry, we know that there is something deeply wrong with being deceived. So how can we reconcile the longing for significance with the need for our identity to be genuine and honest? How can we be content with the limitations of life as it is? As long as our society keeps defining value in such external terms, we will have problems. We need to discover that our true value comes from being made in God's image. Our deepest satisfaction can only come from knowing him, but we will also discover genuine satisfaction when we learn to invest wholeheartedly in relationships with the real people who are around us, rather than pretending to be something we're not.

Film title: Catfish
Keywords: Deception, invention, truth, identity, relationships, satisfaction
Director: Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman
Starring: Megan Faccio, Yaniv Schulman
Distributor: Universal Pictures (USA); Momentum Pictures (UK)
Cinema Release Date: 17 September 2010 (USA); 17 December 2010 (UK)
Certificate: PG-13 (USA); 12A (UK) Contains moderate sex references

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© 2011 Tony Watkins

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