Movie review: ‘Catfish’ nips at trust in the age of Facebook

By Kelsey Gobroski
Sun Star Reporter

New York photographer Nev Schulman, 22, stretches a wide grin for the camera as he gushes about his new online friendships.

“I mean, she must be pretty awesome. At least, from Facebook,” Schulman said.

This is “Catfish,” the documentary behind the red fish silhouette posters around campus.

“I’m definitely going to be thinking about it, and talking about it with friends,” art student Katie Tasky said.

You can’t get to the real meat of “Catfish” without digging past the layers built with each plot twist. If you don’t want to know anything beyond those red silhouettes, there’s your warning.

About 60 people came to the Jan. 28 showing in the Wood Center Ballroom. Social networking’s prominence in film this year shows its impact on students’ lives. The Student Activities Office (SAO) invited Tasky to the event via Facebook, she said.

Society began to plug private lives into loudspeakers when chat room aliases morphed into Facebook profiles. “Catfish” revolves around a protagonist unraveling an online relationship built on trusting his Facebook friends. False personas have been around for a long time, but the film’s use of social networking can be uncomfortably relevant to university students.

“Catfish” premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. The film had a limited release in September 2010 in up to 143 theaters nationwide, according to the Internet Movie Database. The film starts with eight-year-old prodigy Abby Pierce sending Nev Schulman a painting of his published photograph. Directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost start filming. The protagonist enters into a budding romantic correspondence with Megan Faccio, Abby’s half-sister.

When Nev Schulman discovers parts of his friends’ lives are false, the crew travels to Michigan to confront the family. They find a household that looks nothing like its profile pictures. Faccio is nowhere to be found. Matriarch Angela Wesselman built more than a dozen Facebook profiles to construct a life outside of being a wife, Abby’s mother, and caregiver of two mentally disabled brothers.

“We’ve had a lot of stories lately about identity being something that seems uncertain,” said Karen Taylor, UAF assistant professor of communication in an e-mail.

Facebook didn’t invent lying, and “Catfish” didn’t introduce identity deception to mass media. Lindsy van Gelder wrote articles about counterfeit online relationships in 1983 and 1985. “But if Facebook/Internet/social media is not causing the trend, at a minimum, it is certainly inviting more attention to the trend,” Taylor said. If it’s an old issue, Facebook is helping people notice.

SAO found “Catfish” after hearing about its Sundance acclaim, assistant Ryan Bateman said.

Bateman said SAO heard positive responses before the showing, but “Catfish” also conjured curiosity — was the film about the actual fish? Afterward, Cody Rogers, assistant director of SAO, said the questions changed — was “Catfish” really a documentary?

The documentary has spurred some controversy. Multiple movie critics suggest the pieces fit together too snugly and Schulman and his partners must have suspected tomfoolery. Wesselman and director Joost insist the film is authentic, according to ABC and the Independent.

Three or four circles of people dotted the ballroom after the movie. Journalism student Sean Pederson said his group talked about the sadness of the end, considering how Wesselman’s present life contrasted against her dreams of being a dancer.

“Each of us has always had to invent ourselves as we go along.  Why does Facebook make that suddenly something we want to tell so many horror stories about?” Karen Taylor said.

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