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Once Megan and Nev's relationship took a turn for the romantic, Schulman says, "we definitely increased how much we filmed him." That the prospect of a sexual relationship motivated an intensity of interest for both the person inside the relationship and the outside observers says more about what Catfish captures of contemporary life than anything having to do with the film's big reveal. (Let's just say that something happens that forces Nev to question everything he thought he knew about Megan.)
One of the big sticking points for Catfish skeptics is that Nev waited as long as he did (eight months in real time, represented by the first half of the movie) to do the climactic spelunking that causes Megan's story to fall apart. He doesn't really have a solid rebuttal. When asked if he had ever Googled Megan before the detective session we see on-screen, Nev says, "No. Well, if I did, it didn't turn up anything, so I moved on."
"You have to realize that they started out without any suspicions that things were different than they seemed," defends executive producer Jarecki. "So [to say] 'They should have done this, they should have done that' — well, yeah, with hindsight, I guess you might have done things differently. And obviously, a documentary chooses its moments, and chooses when to reveal information."
The "What is Catfish?" question gets more complicated when talking to Ryan Kavanaugh, the charismatic producer whose Relativity Media purchased Catfish after Sundance and is releasing the film through its Rogue Pictures label, under the auspices of Universal Studios. "I think the film is 100 percent a 'documentary,' " Kavanaugh says, calling from vacation in Hawaii, his air quotes audible over the phone. That said, he adds, "You don't want to call it a 'documentary' because it doesn't really do it justice. The term documentary carries kind of a weird, artsy, negative connotation with it."
Kavanaugh and his crew instead decided to brand Catfish as a "reality thriller," which is problematic: "Reality" calls to mind reality TV, which these days is all but openly acknowledged to involve at least some degree of staging and manipulation, right? Kavanaugh says that's not the kind of "reality" he's talking about. "The best analogy I can give is, say you were taking a picture of a couple on the beach and as you're developing the photo, you realize that there is a murder happening in a boat behind the couple."
Rogue/Universal seem intent on scrubbing Catfish of its indie-doc roots. They held the film back from the festival circuit after Sundance, and have an aggressive release strategy. A special effort has been made to avoid booking Catfish in traditional art houses, planting it instead at upscale multiplexes alongside Hollywood fare, as if to dare the audience to spot the difference. It's a gamble built on the assumption that the masses who live their lives online will: (a) be receptive to a film that not only mirrors their behavior but warns against it; and (b) embrace it quickly and ardently enough to spread box office–boosting word of mouth. Meanwhile, the "Don't call it a documentary because people think documentaries are educational and boring" messaging seems to be at odds with the filmmakers' belief that Catfish has nutritive messages to impart to the youth of today.
If Catfish is, as Joost puts it, a "cautionary tale" about how easy it is to construct false realities in a techno-communicative culture — essentially a wagging finger warning us to be careful about talking to strangers — then that's the most boring thing about it. Nev was sucked into these relationships because they stroked his artistic ego, as well as his libido. They gave him everything that everyone wants — attention, flattery, acceptance, confidence — all without requiring him to do much real-life work. Whether you believe Catfish is fact or fiction, it taps into something true: the basic, common need to believe that what feels like love is real.
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