Catfish probes mysteries of on-line life

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      Catfish starts with the sound of breathing and the awkward feeling of being too close to a computer screen. Huge candy-coloured and rectangular pixels dominate the view, and it’s impossible to make out what they are part of. Get used to the confusion, because there’s more to this documentary, which opens on Friday (September 24), than first meets the eye.

      Watch the trailer for Catfish.

      Enter our protagonist, Nev Schulman, a handsome and neurotic 24-year-old dance photographer based in New York City who has a photograph published on the front page of the New York Sun. Weeks later, a painting of the photo arrives in the mail from an eight-year-old prodigy named Abby.

      Intrigued by stories of Abby’s family’s simple suburban life in Michigan, Nev befriends the entire family on Facebook. That family includes Abby’s gorgeous 19-year-old sister, Megan, who catches his eye.

      That’s the premise for this bizarre and haunting long-distance romance, documented by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, Nev’s brother. These three best friends take the audience on a 21st-century adventure that explores the virtual parts of reality.

      “It was a little strange at first,” Nev says during a conference call from Los Angeles. “Although I’m used to participating in the filmmaking processes with my brother, I didn’t really understand why he thought it was necessary to film me because of the relationship I was having.”

      But film they did. The results are entrancing, particularly when chance discoveries on YouTube suggest that Nev and the filmmakers may have uncovered a larger mystery. The clues are enough to send the trio on a last-minute road trip to Michigan, powered by Google Street View, Google Maps, and their iPhones.

      As this sweet digital love story turns into a spooky mystery, it can be hard to believe Nev had no idea where this fateful series of events was leading. For his part, he says the road signs were there, but they were moving too quickly.

      “There was also so much information, so much correspondence, and so many different personal and private and funny things, there was so much to the relationship I was having with all these people,” Nev says. “If ever there was a moment where I had a doubt, or a curiosity that needed explanation, it was quickly covered up by a whole new round of distractions. I never really had time to stop and think too long about anything.”

      Although Catfish addresses how one can parse the real from the fake on-line, some audience members have questioned the film’s veracity, both at its premiere at Sundance and on the Web. “It’s something we didn’t anticipate at all when we were editing,” Joost explains, “but it makes sense because of this trend recently of documentaries looking like movies or movies looking like documentaries, to take viral videos and commercials trying to look like YouTube videos, and things like that. Now that we think about it, it makes sense, but the movie is totally real.”

      As a morality play about modern life, where our Facebook profiles are projections of what we want, what we think we deserve, the film has two somewhat contradictory messages, says Ariel Schulman.

      “The first one is be careful with the Internet and with digital communications, and the idea that not everything is what it seems,” he says. “The second is don’t close yourself off to new experience and to random friend requests, because that might be the person who changes your life.”