Social media sends one man into a tailspin in 'Catfish'
Around a conference table at the Four Seasons Downtown, filmmaking partners and lifelong friends Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (NY Export: Opus Jazz) sit with the subject of their film, Yaniv Schulman, who is known as Nev and is Ariel's younger brother. The three men, all seemingly good-natured, burst into laughter often and stop midanswer to crack wise with one another. They appear utterly unfazed by the presence of a digital recorder on the table; in fact, a studio publicist has already warned me that they might be taping me.
Grasping that fact, of the shrugging habitualness of electronic media in their lives, is essential to understanding how their provocative documentary Catfish – billed as a "reality thriller" – came to be. By generation and by occupation, they are camera-ready: always armed with an iPhone and a digital camera, ever uploading images and updating their Facebook pages.
With that context in mind, it is fortuitous –but not improbable, as some critics have speculated –that filmmakers Henry and Ariel would begin to casually document the burgeoning long-distance friendship between Nev, a professional photographer, and Abby, an 8-year-old girl in Michigan. As the opening minutes of the film explain, Abby contacted Nev after she saw one of his photographs in print and made an original painting of it. Nev spoke with Abby's mother, Angela, with some regularity, and he became Facebook friends with their extended family. He eventually struck up a phone courtship with Abby's 19-year-old sister, Megan, a horse enthusiast and accomplished musician, in a whirlwind affair that sent Nev, with his brother and friend in tow, on a trip to Michigan to meet the family that had so enthralled them.
If that were the whole story, well, it wouldn't be an especially sensational one, just another true-life tale about social media shrinking the world down to a more manageable size. But in the case of Nev, social media didn't shrink his world – it blew it up. And Henry and Ariel caught it all on camera.
Austin Chronicle: I'm not entirely sure I'm going to be able to talk to you for half an hour without, you know, talking about all the stuff I'm not supposed to talk about. Is that an interesting challenge for you on this press tour?
Nev: Yeah. Certainly a more interesting challenge for you. [laughs] 'Cause we'll talk about it. We just hope you won't print half of it.
AC: I don't want to give anything away.
Nev: It becomes a game as to, like, who can say the most and the least about this movie.
Henry: We have to talk in a very abstract way. ...
Nev: We sort of end by saying, "And then it got crazy." ...
AC: I want to ask about the "we" aspect. [to Nev] Do you think of yourself as the subject of the film, or are you a collaborator?
Nev: The story is mine in the sense that it was a correspondence that started with me and, more importantly, it was sort of a fantasy that I was pursuing – an idea, a concept that I was excited about and hoping would become real. So not only was I thrilled at the idea of having an 8-year-old art protégée inspired by my photographs, which in turn inspired me, but then of course I had a smart, interesting, talented, beautiful 19-year-old girl ... who was in love with me. And she lived in the opposite lifestyle that I lived in. I'm in the city, I've never lived anywhere but Manhattan, and here's a girl who's got acres and acres of land and goes snowmobiling and rides horses.
So I was pursuing it, and all along [Henry and Ariel] were observing. And then of course, it happened that we were together when I discovered that they had lied to me, a small little lie about a song. [Megan sent Nev an audio file of a song, claiming she was the performer; a quick Internet search proved it was actually a recording by Austin-based singer-songwriter Suzanna Choffel.]
It hurt me, of course. I was hurt. And I thought, I'm not sure I want to go down this road if it could lead to discovering more lies. And that's when it became a journey for all three of us.
AC: But certainly Nev is the one being exposed in a very intense way.
Henry: That's true. ... We edited the film without Nev around just out of sensitivity for him, because when we got back, it was still kind of raw emotions for him. ...
Ariel: We were looking out for him, though.
Nev: I think the only shot I asked you guys to consider removing was the one of me in my little tighty-whities.
Ariel: Which we didn't remove.
Nev: It didn't take a lot of convincing. They were like, "No, it's important to the film." ...
AC: [to Henry and Ariel] Did you feel conflicted between your roles as filmmakers and your roles as brother/friend?
Henry: Yeah. It's not a traditional documentary where the filmmaker takes steps back and observes and is a fly on the wall and doesn't interfere. Because we were seeing our friend, and Rel's brother, going through this really intense emotional pain, and at the same time [we were] trying to figure out what the truth was and trying to tell this story. So it was a balancing act for us between holding the camera and, you know, holding his hand.
AC: Did you anticipate the kind of questions about the film's authenticity you got at the premiere at Sundance last year?
Henry: That was kind of unexpected. ... It is a real film; it was a real experience that we had, so that didn't occur to us that people would feel that way. ... I feel like 99% of the questions are about other things, from real audiences after screenings, and then every once in a while people will say that it seems a little too good to be true. And it felt that way to us, also, while we were making it.
AC: [to Nev] Has participating in the film and its promotion been cathartic for you, or has it just been like picking at the same scab over and over again?
Nev: I've found [it] to be wonderful. ... I'm in new places talking to new people about something that means a lot to me. Fortunately, because I have a close relationship with my family, I think emotionally I've recovered from the event. And now I get to sort of spread the word and start conversations about what I think is a really important topic to be talking about.
AC: Important how?
Nev: For me, it's the idea that we use the Internet to connect, of course, and more specifically, we use it to make friends. ... But you can't necessarily call them and say, "Hey, let's go get dinner and see a movie." So how much is someone really your friend – the new definition of the word "friend"? That's a little troubling. ...
We use the Internet as such a crutch to distract ourselves from situations in real life that might be uncomfortable. But you need those situations. That's how you become closer with people.
AC: Do y'all collectively have a sort of wariness now about social media's connectivity?
Henry: Yes and no. I think that the flip side of the lesson of the film is that you also need to be open to things, to possibilities in your life. We never would have made this film if we weren't open people, particularly Nev. [to Nev] I don't think that you would just brush somebody off because you don't "know" them now. You just have to be careful and mindful.
Ariel: I think innocence is a good quality. It shows an open-mindedness. We're sort of nonjudgmental people.
AC: And that hasn't gone away?
Ariel: I was overly suspicious for a while, and I'd meet someone in real life and I'd sort of check their credentials. Literally, I'd ask for their licenses. But that didn't feel comfortable, it didn't feel right, it didn't feel like my natural instinct, which is to welcome people into my life.
Nev: Yeah, I mean, It's exhausting to assume people are lying to you all the time. To me, it's impossible. I can't do it. Sometimes I'm upset with myself for forgetting that I had a reason to be resentful toward someone. I see them, and I'm like, "Hey, how are you?" and then I'm like: "Crap! I should have been nasty to them!" Who wants to carry around negativity? We don't.
Catfish opens in Austin on Friday, Sept. 17. See Film Listings for review.