Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Catfish & the Nature of Deceit Part I

So I watched a movie called "Catfish" last night and then followed it up with a podcast about the movie recorded by Kevin Smith and his wife Jennifer (Plus One, available now). If you haven't seen this movie yet, go ahead and watch it now, before you read any more. You really should see this movie with no prior knowledge of what it's about whatsoever.

Go ahead...I'll wait.



Okay, you ready??

So "Catfish" is a documentary about a young photographer named Nev Schulman who develops a relationship with a family after receiving a painting of one of his photos by a little girl named Abby, who paints extremely well for a pre-pubescent girl. The premise of the documentary is initially to get to know Abby through the young photographer. Nev grows to know the girl, her mother, and the whole family, including something like 20 of their friends via Facebook and even begins a long-distance romance with Abby's older sister, a 19 year old named Megan. However, things take a turn for the surreal when, over the course of the documentary, Nev and the filmmakers learn that the entire family and almost everything he has been told has all been one tremendous lie, perpetuated by Abby's mother, Angela, who has gone to outrageous lengths to fabricate this huge fantasy for no discernible reason or gain. It turns out that Angela has her own incredibly tragic story and has been using Nev as...what? An escape from reality?

It's incredibly mind-boggling how far Angela has gone to fool young Nev and sort of heartbreaking when you learn of her terrible secrets and how it affects her when the whole story finally falls apart. This is a riveting, and allegedly 100% true story.

Anyway, Kevin Smith and his wife, Jennifer, saw this film and made a podcast about it wherein they got into a somewhat heated debate about who the protagonist really is. Kevin sympathizes deeply with Angela, whose life is really like a living hell, saying that she clearly needs this escape from reality and that she's not really hurting anyone or getting anything material out of it so it's okay for her to indulge this fantasy. Jen, on the other hand, is simply flabbergasted by the boldness and sheer audacity of the woman, and just can't believe that Angela could be so dishonest. Even when caught in the documentary, Angela still lies and even starts new lies to try to gain further sympathy. Jen cannot get behind this behavior for any reason. This debate made me stop and consider the nature of deceit and what might be considered a justifiable or harmless lie. Is there such a thing?

I can relate to Nev in this movie as I had a similar experience in 2001/2002 when an online friendship and then romance that I got involved with turned out to be much more complicated than initially expected due to some half-truths and lies I was told. Further, I've had many, many loved ones blatantly lie to me my whole life. These experiences have taught me two things.

Lesson 1: In all of my dealings I should always try to be as honest as possible. At my worst (these days) I am guilty only of withholding the truth, or parts thereof, mainly in an effort to be diplomatic. This has led some people to believe that I am a quiet person. Those who know me know better. One of the consequences of my friendship is that I become much more willing to voice my full opinion du jour, whether it proves popular or not. While this sometimes causes trouble, I feel it is preferable to keeping my thoughts and feelings bottled up inside 24/7. Whether I'm right or not, time will tell.

Lesson 2: I've learned the hard way that regardless of how much you love and care for someone, no matter how close you become or how well you know a person, you can never really trust anyone. At least, not without making a conscience effort and knowing that someday, sooner or later, you are very likely to be hurt. Before I start to sound all "holier-than-thou" let me say that I put myself firmly in this category along with all of humanity. You should not believe in me. Trust no one.

So where do my sympathies lie in regards to the people of "Catfish"? Do I feel bad for Angela, with her truly horrendous life? She was using the internet to build a fantasy world as her one means of coping with reality, only to have it cruelly torn away from her. I can understand her behavior, given her situation, and can certainly empathize.

Do I side with Nev who is hurt and baffled by his betrayal at Angela's hands, almost unwilling to believe that the events he has lived through are some incredible fabrication? He was literally falling in love with a lie and as a result may never trust again. I think I've made it clear that I can relate to that.

Well, watch the movie (you should have already if you've read this far) and think about who you think has the better case. Who does your gut want you to side with? Who gains your sympathies and, in giving said sympathy, what does that say about your own character?

I'm going to go off and think some more about it as well. Then we'll reconvene as I struggle further with these questions in Part II. Maybe I'll come up with an answer.



  1. So I finished watching the movie and I felt rather creeped out about the whole thing. I kinda wanted a shower. Of course you end up asking can we really know who people actually are online?

    I realize that tugging at heart strings while online goes a long way and the mystery of who the person is very exciting.

    I have to say too that it has made me cautious and I think setups where you actually meet people in REAL LIFE is the way to go. I want to meet the person before engaging in an online relationship. I know sometimes that is difficult.

    Now I think it is very tacky at the end of the movie that he did not delete her as a friend. He spent over nine months of his life engaged in a game of lies. That implies that he wasn't hurt that much. Plus he used the movie as a Facebook ad for himself. I am sure he has more than 732 friends now and I am sure Angela has become a victim of spammers. He should have dumped her to the curb.

    We all run our own "versions" of stories around people. Can we honestly say there is someone who knows the TRUTH? The only one who knows the truth is you. That is part of what makes us unique. Sometimes we don't tell people the truth because we don't want to hurt them. As Angela said she was so scared that she would lose the friendship. The problem is when you create such an elaborate lie. Everything in moderation is best.

  2. Very nice write-up. Without sounding smug, I did anticipate the reveal (mostly by hearing that there was a reveal at all), but I did find its representation of those themes interesting.

    As someone who has played with different personas on different websites (though Facebook is probably the closest to real me as any) I can understand that need to put on performances as a means for acceptance or hiding some sort of pain. Given the emotional turmoil Angela left, my sympathies were not immediate but maybe her extreme loneliness is one that I can't understand. Maybe that's good for me in s selfish way, but it does underline how technology has given a new venue to bury our pain. And Nev is all too happy to continue believing the lie (or pretending it doesn't hurt) because maybe if he had a more tangible emotional connection, he wouldn't have been suckered in the first place. I dunno, this was an interesting movie, maybe part of me was even shocked that this kind of scenario was a possibility.