What is Catfish? That question is an implicit part of the film's marketing campaign, which, with the tagline “Don't let anyone tell you what it is,” teases a big reveal. The answer depends on whom you ask.

Shot on the fly by Ariel “Rel” Schulman and Henry Joost, the film chronicles an online relationship that develops between Schulman's brother, charismatic 20-something New York photographer Nev, and a family in Michigan who, the filmmakers discover mid-filming, aren't who they purport to be.

When Catfish premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, the festival's program guide classified it as a documentary.

But a certain segment of the audience — hip to the current trend in quasi-nonfiction (see: Exit Through the Gift Shop, I'm Still Here), wise to the ways of the Web and wary of being conned — wasn't buying the festival's and the filmmakers' assurances that this was not a work of fiction. After the first screening, documentary superstar Morgan Spurlock allegedly approached a member of Team Catfish and said, “That is the best fake documentary I've ever seen.” By the final Sundance screening, when a civilian audience member commented during the Q&A that he suspected the film was “really a faux documentary,” the filmmakers were on the defensive. “Oh, so you're saying that my brother is the best actor in the world? And we're the best writers in Hollywood?” responded Schulman, with no small hint of annoyed sarcasm. “Thank you!” That was the end of that Q&A.

Catfish's directors, their main subject and others close to the film insist that nothing in the final cut was fabricated, staged or re-created. “The reason why some people have said parts of the movie are not real,” Joost says, “is because it's told in a way that you're not used to documentaries being told — in real time.”

Catfish has no narration and no traditional interviews. Instead, Joost and Schulman make ingenious use of the technologies on which Nev's relationships were based — Facebook, YouTube, Google Maps, Gchat — to introduce the characters and provide the bulk of the story's exposition, rephotographing computer screens at close enough range that the pixels show. “We actually went down that [other] road — we shot talking heads, we had voice-over narration at one point,” Joost says. “And then we showed it to some filmmaker friends, and they said, 'Guys, you have the footage to edit this thing like a narrative.' That was a huge revelation for us — that we could edit it exactly the way it unfolded in real life.”

One of those filmmaker friends was Andrew Jarecki, co-founder of Moviefone and director of Capturing the Friedmans, another controversial documentary sensation that started as one type of film and became another. “I think the percentage of people that really believe you could make this up is pretty small,” says Jarecki, who started working with Joost and Schulman in postproduction and is credited as an executive producer on the film. “Once you meet the boys, you realize that this is not Banksy — these boys are not the kind of guys that want to make some kind of PR sensation or trick the public.”

My experience talking to “the boys” fits with Jarecki's description. They did not strike me as calculating or cynical enough to formulate a major media hoax. I believe them; I also believe that their film's nonfiction status has little to do with why it resonates.

The story of Catfish started in December 2007. Nev, Schulman and Joost were photographers/videographers sharing an office in Manhattan. Nev's photograph of a dance performance had been published in The New York Sun, and one day in December 2007, he received a package with a Michigan postmark, containing an impressionistic painting of the photo, with a letter explaining that the painting was the work of a prodigiously talented little girl named Abby. Abby and Nev started up an e-mail friendship, which soon involved Abby's mother, Angela. Nev became Facebook friends with both, and then with Abby's dad, her brother and a host of their friends and family members, all assorted members of what seemed to be a low-key artists' community.

Joost and Schulman started casually filming Nev's interactions with this family. “We were just thinking of it as home video footage,” says Schulman. Joost chimes in: “We just thought it was interesting that he was getting into this group of artists, and we thought maybe it would be a nice short film about a photographer mentoring a young painter, and a young painter inspiring a photographer.

“And then Megan entered the picture, and it became a love story.”

Two months after Abby initiated contact with Nev, he got an e-mail from Abby's half-sister — a gorgeous, coquettish, apparently virginal 19-year-old model-dancer named Megan. Over the next six months, Megan and Nev built a friendship — e-mailing, Facebooking, texting and talking on the phone. Although the two hadn't met, their bond became intimate.

“She started e-mailing me these photos,” Nev recalls. “They were very provocative. And she'd be, like, 'I just did this photo shoot, what do you think?' And of course, I, uh, approved of the work. And that's when I was, like, 'Oh, my god, this girl is really coming on to me.' ”

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.

Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting LA Weekly and our advertisers.