Forget The Social Network - Catfish is the real Facebook film

The new lo-fi documentary is one of the best indie releases of the year. But is it for real? Kaleem Aftab finds out

It's being billed as "the real Facebook movie". Hot on the heels of The Social Network, David Fincher's dramatic retelling of the founding of the social networking site, comes Catfish. And in terms of showing the power of Facebook to transform lives, it's the latter, a low-budget, indie documentary made by two twentysomething debut directors, that wins hands down.

The film starts offline in 2007 when photographer Yaniv "Nev" Schulman receives some fan mail from Abby, an eight-year-old artistic prodigy, who sends him a painting she has made of one of his photographs. Nev's brother Ariel "Rel" Schulman and his film-making partner Henry Joost, who happen have an office along the corridor, immediately take out a camera and start filming Nev's reaction to receiving the painting, and the ensuing email conversation he strikes up with his young fan.

This is the first of many moments that seem perhaps a tad too convenient in the movie which calls itself a documentary but has been repeatedly called out for being a work of fiction since its first screening at Sundance earlier this year. One thing is for sure, as the story unfolds, the boundaries between truth and fiction, cyberspace and reality become increasingly blurred – and it's fascinating to watch.

Nev strikes up a Facebook relationship with Abby and, through her, Angela Wesselman, Abby's mother and Megan, Abby's 19-year-old half-sister, a singer, dancer and aspiring model whose profile picture looks like it's been cut straight out of the latest edition of Vogue. So begins the photographer's friendship with a Michigan-based family and their circle of Facebook friends – truly a story of our times where social networks allow us to get to know people in cyberspace we may never have met in reality.

The middle section of the movie concentrates on the developing relationship between Nev and Megan who start to fall for each other through online communication, text messages, instant messaging, and late-night phone conversations. The two have never met but as Nev begins to Photoshop pictures of himself with Megan to see how they'd look together as a couple, the love story takes on the air of a schoolboy with crush on a celebrity. He's giddy, but can he really know her from this online communication? Perhaps. Perhaps he even knows her better than if they'd gone on a series of dates.

The three lads filming the New York side of the correspondence are all likeable and interesting figures but at this point the movie is mildly diverting rather than engrossing. It's like watching someone else playing a video game, fun but not half as good as taking the controls yourself. Then comes the twist as Nev and the guys start to realise that there is something rotten in the state of Facebook. As the boys travel to Michigan to meet Megan, a string of lies and deception is uncovered. All of a sudden the movie moves from being a love story to a cautionary tale.

It's this third act that has the naysayers out in force, claiming that the filmmakers, in making a movie about fakers on Facebook, have themselves faked a movie about Facebook. The argument goes that three tech-savvy twentysomethings would have done a Google search on the family and their paintings and immediately worked out something was up. There's also an inherent oddness in a 24-year-old wanting to communicate with an eight-year-old. Cynics claim that the film-makers set up the scenario to say something about modern life, in the same way that Joaquin Phoenix wanted to talk about celebrity truth and fiction in his mockumentary I'm Still Here.

So what's the truth? I dive straight in and ask 28-year-old co-director Henry Joost what it's like to make a fictional film. "I wouldn't know," he says, almost spilling his coffee. "I will refute every point if you think it's a lie. The film has been out since Sundance. Don't you think that someone would have found proof by now if it was fake?"

If Phoenix could do it for a year, then surely so can a group of filmmakers who have created a story using people that don't have to pretend to be anything but themselves. "But I knew that was a fake when I saw him on Letterman," retorts Joost. "Performance art: I can't believe in that."

Art history is littered with characters pretending to be real who turn out to be fake – most recently J T LeRoy who published several books, one of which was made into a film before he was outed as the author Laura Albert. As with that story, the debate about the authenticity of Catfish has only added to its mystique. If it is a fake, how did the guys pull it off? How much of it was faked? And when did they come up with the idea? "I can understand the thinking that we re-created things, even though we didn't, and that we manipulated things," says Joost, refusing to budge. "I can't understand the idea of it all being fake."

The other possibility is that the mother figure, Angela Wesselman, was behind the whole thing. She is the character who gives the movie its name, her husband saying of her at the end "a catfish is the person in your life who keeps you on your toes". Wesselman appeared on the American TV show 20/20 to talk about her role in Catfish where she admitted that she had been diagnosed as schizophrenic. While it's undeniable that Wesselman is a real person, the question is how well she knew the film-makers and whether she knew them before the cameras started rolling.

The film-makers claim that Wesselman only became officially involved in the project when they met her in Michigan and that she was out to dupe them from the moment that the painting landed on their doorstep. "I believe on some level it was her intention to have this story told," Joost says. "She is an artist, and she wants to express herself. An artist needs an audience."

Ultimately, whether one believes the whole film is fake, parts of it are fake or it happened exactly as the film-makers present it, the essence – that the movie is a picture of modern-day life – does not change. Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix failed to achieve the same level of mystery with I'm Still Here, mainly because Affleck was so quick to admit to the falsehood of his film after its release. But Affleck had his brother-in-law's livelihood to worry about; the unknowns of Catfish simply don't have as much to lose, and they're standing firm.

The only parts that the film-makers will admit to reshooting are the Facebook screenshots. "That's only because we didn't get them the first time around," says Joost. The film has also been slightly recut from the version shown at Sundance, which could imply that the film-makers are out to manipulate their audiences. Joost says, "We had pressure from the studio to splice it up in the third act. We took it apart without telling them to see if there was any merit in that, and decided that there wasn't. But in the process we decided to add in some flashback moments."

If some moments have been manipulated it doesn't necessarily undermine documentary truth. Even the proponents of cinéma vérité admitted that there was no way of actually filming the truth; editorial choices are always being made.

"When you have a lot of footage of someone you can make they seem like whatever you want," says Joost. "In the same way that you have an interview with me and can make me seem like whatever you want. It's up to you."

And that's the key to Catfish. It's up to the audience what they believe, whether they think that the film-makers are as naive as they seem on screen, cynical manipulators of fiction, or something in between. Indeed, the real truth may never be revealed.

'Catfish' is released on 17 December

Fact or fake? Four movies that play with reality

I'm Still Here (2010)

Who could forget the unkempt and incoherent Joaquin Phoenix's interview on 'The Late Show with David Letterman'? Was he really retiring from acting to become a rap star? It turns out it was all part of a great Hollywood hoax. Casey Affleck, Phoenix's brother in law, eventually exposed it as a fake – but only after the film's release.

Borat (2006)

Although Sacha Baron Cohen's character in 'Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan' was clearly a spoof, we never really knew if the people caught up in it were in on the joke or not. Either way, the fictitious Kazakh journalist travelling through America caused quite a stir.

Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)

For his documentary, the LA-based French shopkeeper Thierry Guetta set out to shoot street artists, including Banksy, at work. Or did he? Naturally the secretive stencil artist refused to be shown onscreen unless he was blacked out. Banksy then ended up filming the movie himself while convincing Guetta to reinvent himself as a street artist called Mr Brainwash.

The Fourth Kind (2009)

This American alien abduction thriller, staring Milla Jovovich and set in Alaska was billed as containing real footage from genuine case stories. This footage includes sessions with patients who were abducted and a psychiatrist who manages to record herself being abducted by aliens who scream at her in Sumerian. Some claim

it is so badly faked it insults viewers' intelligence.

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