“Everything Else Was True” — “Catfishing” with Manti T’eo and on MTV

Posted on January 23, 2013 at 3:59 pm

Notre Dame football player Manti T’eo says that he was the victim of a heartless hoax.  He thought he had a girlfriend who died of cancer.  But no such person existed.  Although he told people he had seen and spoken to her, it seems now as though his only contact with “her” was online.

This kind of fraud is now referred to as “catfishing,” based on the documentary that showed us a young man’s online relationship with a woman he thought was young, beautiful, and single, who turned out to be middle-aged and married.  At the end of that film, her husband told a story.

They used to tank cod from Alaska all the way to China. They’d keep them in vats in the ship. By the time the codfish reached China, the flesh was mush and tasteless. So this guy came up with the idea that if you put these cods in these big vats, put some catfish in with them and the catfish will keep the cod agile. And there are those people who are catfish in life. And they keep you on your toes. They keep you guessing, they keep you thinking, they keep you fresh. And I thank god for the catfish because we would be droll, boring and dull if we didn’t have somebody nipping at our fin.

That young man was Nev Schulman, who now has a series on MTV about other “catfish” relationships.  The episodes are heartbreaking, as over and over we see not just the pain of those who discover that they have been lied to, but the anguish of those who are desperate for intimacy and connection but do not believe that they can find it without misrepresenting themselves, and who don’t seem to understand that lying will just make them more isolated.  “Everything else was true,” says one “catfisher,” who lied about his age, his photo, where he lived, and how many children he had.

Online relationships are inherently deceptive because we can’t help projecting more of our hopes and wishes than we realize onto the words on a screen.  Parents should use the story of Manti T’eo and the “Catfish” television series to talk to teenagers about the importance of being careful.

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Internet, Gaming, Podcasts, and Apps Parenting Television Understanding Media and Pop Culture

The Rest of the ‘Catfish’ Review (Spoiler Alert!)

Posted on January 3, 2011 at 3:56 pm

If you have seen “Catfish” and are ready for the rest of my review, here it is:
In the early days of the World Wide Web, a widely-circulated New Yorker cartoon showed a dog sitting up before a computer, paws on the keyboard. The caption read, “On the internet, no one knows you’re a dog.” We all know too well the stories about people who pretend to be something or someone they are not online. Nev knows that the beautiful young woman whose picture he hopefully Photoshops with his own may not be exactly what she says. He jokes that it could be a guy. But he gets caught up despite himself. When he and the film-makers go to Michigan, they are open to adventure. They know that Megan may not be what they expect. But what they find is something they could never have imagined.
Nev believes he is in touch with an entire community of people. It turns out he is in touch with one person, Angela. She is in reality the mother of Abby, the little girl, and Megan, the 19-year-old, and all of the people Nev has “friended” are real people. But they are not on Facebook. Angela has created all of the Facebook pages and personas — and kept two cell phones, one to answer as herself, one to answer as Megan. All of them have names and other identifying characteristics of the real people and places and events in Angela’s life, but in a much more fundamental way, all of them are aspects of Angela herself. The movie’s most powerful moments are when we realize that Angela was not trying to deceive Nev as much as she was trying to present a self that felt more authentic to her than the life she was actually leading. She is like both Cyrano de Bergerac and the handsome-but-blank soldier whose love letters he penned.
At first, Angela tries to keep the fantasy alive. But with surprising gentleness, Nev encourages her to confess. She had once dreamed of being an artist but she was living in a remote part of Michigan, caring for two profoundly disabled teenage step-sons. Like many of us, Angela looked around at her life, very far from what she had hoped for and felt that it wasn’t who she really was. And so, like a novelist or screenwriter, she imagined another world. For a little while, it felt more real to her and to Nev than what they were living. She longed for Nev’s life in the midst of the cultural opportunities of New York. He longed for the bucolic pleasures of the country. They both longed for someone to love and be loved by. And for a moment, they found it, or what felt like it anyway.
Angela often ends her sentences with a “so…..,” not ready to finish the thought, not willing to see where it leads, but not able to end where it is. It is telling that her paintings, which mean so much to her, are based on photographs. Just as she amplifies and embroiders and expands on the images of what really exists in her artwork, she took the details of her life and made them prettier. But as Nev cannot find it in his heart to be angry or feel badly deceived, we, too, respond to her need to spend a few hours a day as the person she felt she was meant to be. It is moving to see his spirit expand to recognize that it was not Angela’s lies he was drawn to, but her truth. And at the end, when for the first time we understand the meaning of the film’s title, and then we see where Nev’s relationship with Angela is today, we can feel our own spirits expanding, and rising, to greater understanding and forgiveness.

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Spoiler Alert


Posted on January 3, 2011 at 8:00 am

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some sexual references
Profanity: Some sexual references and mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Tense scenes, reference to sad death
Diversity Issues: Disabled characters
Date Released to Theaters: September 17, 2010
Date Released to DVD: January 3, 2011
Amazon.com ASIN: B003Q6D1YW

Let’s say you’re a guy. And the girl you really like has finally agreed to go out with you. You’re at the restaurant ordering pizza. And she says her favorite pizza is Hawaiian, with pineapple. The idea makes you feel a little queasy; normally you order pepperoni. What do you say? On a first date, isn’t it likely to be, “Sounds great!” And you hope someday you’ll be telling your grandchildren the funny story of your first date with Grammy, and how you either discovered that you loved pineapple on your pizza or that three months later, when you were finally comfortable enough with the girl to tell her how you really felt, she laughed and confessed that she wasn’t really interested in college basketball as she had pretended to be on that same first date. So you may not have pineapple pizza and the NCAA in common, but you have something even more important — you both cared enough about making the relationship work to create some superficial commonality while the more important connection was building.

Now let’s say you’re online. There are two reasons online attachments get intensely personal so quickly. The first is the capacity of the internet to connect you to the one other person in the world who cares as passionately as you do about not just pineapple pizza but pineapple pizza with pesto-encrusted pineapple slices and fontina cheese. That connection is so immediately validating that you can’t help feeling that whatever else you have in common is enormously significant and whatever you don’t doesn’t matter. The second reason is that online communication is like a Rorschach test; we project onto all the empty spaces all the things we subconsciously want to see there, unable to realize how much of what we see comes from our own minds. Which brings me to a third reason — they work because we want them to. They are the perfect fantasy relationship, creating the illusion of intimacy without the risk because we have control over what we send back. Until we don’t, when it stops working and fantasy relationships lead to real-life heartbreak.

And yes, there is a movie review here, not just a meditation on the pleasures and perils of online relationships. But it is hard to talk about the movie directly without giving too much away. So, I’m going to tell you as much as I think is fair and then, after you’ve seen it, send me an email at moviemom@moviemom.com and if you’d like to see the rest of my review, I’ll send it to you.

Nev (pronounced Neev) is a young, New York-based photographer whose brother, Rel, is a film-maker. Rel and his partner Henry Joost, started filming Nev as he opened a package from someone who had seen one of his photos. The gift, a painting from a little girl inspired by the photograph, led to connections online via Facebook — the little girl’s mother Angela and sister Megan and their relatives and friends, all in Michigan. Nev began talking to them on the phone and texting them, getting caught up in the daily details of their lives, and growing increasingly attached to Megan. And then, when he began to have some doubts, Nev went to Michigan to see them, bringing Rel, Joost, and the camera along.

What happens then is a haunting exploration of identity, intimacy, desire, and the temptations of online relationships. Whatever you expect, the movie will surprise you. And if you want the rest of my review, send me an email.

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Documentary DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week

Interview: Nev and Rel Schulman and Henry Joost of ‘Catfish’

Posted on September 26, 2010 at 3:48 pm

Manhattan film-makers Rel Schulman and Henry Joost had no idea what movie they were making when they turned their camera on Rel’s brother Nev as he opened up a package sent to him from a little girl he had never met.
In a world where technology makes possible and culture makes acceptable the idea of everyone’s starring in some sort of reality show documentary, Rel and Henry were used to filming whatever was going on around them. In this case, that happened to be Nev’s increasing involvement via Facebook, telephone, and texting with an 8-year old girl named Abby, her mother Angela and half-sister Megan, and and their extended family and friends. And then, when Nev began to doubt the authenticity of the stories he was being told, the movie began to be about his impulsive journey to Michigan to see for himself who was on the other side of the digital connection.
The movie is called Catfish and it is a surprise critical and box office hit.
I spoke to them in Washington, D.C. and yes, they were filming their tour here for a possible documentary about the fame and fortune their movie was bringing them. They recorded me as I recorded them. Henry told me that he believes everyone has a story that could become a documentary. He says he and Rel would like to make feature films as well, but that they will always make documentaries. I asked him whether getting to know someone on Facebook was different from the selective revelations of the early stages of any romance. He said, “Yes. It’s digital; it’s binary. You either like something or you don’t. There’s no in between. You determine the way you are presented There’s none of that ambiguity of eye contact and body language and things you pick up in person when you are with someone. You pick this photo or that photo.”
Rel said that even as friends gathered regularly to hear updates on Nev’s developing online romance with Megan, they did not think of that relationship as the story of the film until the night in Vail, Colorado, when the discrepancies in her stories began to make them wonder who it was that Nev was falling for.
I talked with Nev about his hesitation in committing to both the film and the romance.
In the film you seem to be ambivalent about being in a movie. At what point did you really agree to commit to it?
Nev: Not until a couple of weeks before Sundance. I agreed by default in the sense that I share an office and at the time an apartment with my brother. That’s the nature of being friends with those guys. The cameras are on and if you are around them, you might be in their next short film.
But officially I hadn’t agreed. I always held that trump card. I wanted to wait and see how it turned out because I was so unsure what it would look like, so it wasn’t until a couple of weeks before Sundance that I really signed off on it and said, “here’s my signature.” I was a little concerned and nervous about the movie coming out. I certainly didn’t expect that it would get into Sundance or that it would get bought. In a way this is even stranger than the story in the movie itself. You can’t write something like this; it just has to happen.
How closely were Rel and Henry following the development of your relationship with Abby and her family?
They didn’t really know just how involved I had been with the whole experience. I only told them about certain things, funny emails, the paintings that were arriving. They weren’t aware of how emotionally involved I had become because they were busy with other things like a ballet film for PBS. This was a side project that they occasionally paid attention to. I don’t think even they knew there was a movie there until we got back from Vail . They said, “that was intense, but how do we tell that story?” I said, “There’s a lot you don’t know about.” I gave them access to my emails and texts and with that and the clips from the last nine months, they said they had enough.
What did they shoot that didn’t make it into the film?
They also did a lot of interviews, talking heads, that never made it into the film. My mom was concerned for me at the beginning of this, thinking there was something they wanted to get out of me. She reached out to Angela early on. First she was pursuing their concerns and then it was about whether their children’s romantic involvement was a good idea.
I was one of the early members when you first had to have an .edu email address. And before that it was myspace and friendster. I’m the first generation to grow up on these websites. And that is why I’m more susceptible than younger kids are. When the internet was new, it felt like very official and real and genuine. The internet’s at that crucial moment now where people are beginning to question whether what they see is real.
I was as much in love as I could have been under the circumstances. What the film speaks to is the desire to get out of your situation. I had only dated city girls and lived in a crazy urban jungle. And the internet gives you the opportunity to get in touch with people beyond your realm. Looking back, I see just how tailor-made every character was for me. She made a girl based on the pieces of the puzzle I gave her. The danger of online profiles is that you surrender so much of yourself so easily and it makes it easy for someone to say, “I also love all that stuff.”
What was your Facebook experience before you became involved with the Michigan “friends?”
I was one of the early members when you first had to have an .edu email address. And before that it was myspace and friendster. I’m the first generation to grow up on these websites. And that is why I’m more susceptible than younger kids are. When the internet was new, it felt like very official and real and genuine. The internet’s at that crucial moment now where people are beginning to question whether what they see is real.
Did you and do you think you were in love with Megan?
I came back from the trip very depressed and angry. But I realized it was me breaking my own heart and distracting myself from a real relationship with real investment. I’ve been through a lot of stuff, always my fault, and sometimes with consequences. I put myself on the line but I did it in a way that I knew I was putting myself at risk so it wasn’t totally a surprise in some way. I was so lucky with a supportive family that it made it a lot easier to come back and not feel completely lost and heartbroken.
How did it affect you to have a very personal story become so public?
I would have probably learned a lot less about what it meant and why it happened and been less self-reflective and therapeutic if I had not had the opportunity to watch it so closely on film. It has been an incredible growing experience. How often do you get to relive your most vulnerable nine months of your life and then talk about it? Every time I answer a question about the movie I think about it and reconsider it and connect with people and learn from their stories. I’ve become a sort of Facebook philosopher. But of course I don’t recommend to anyone making a movie of your most intense and emotional experience.
Is this experience so different from getting to know someone in real life?
This kind of thing does happen in person, though. You meet someone and then find out they’re married or that they have a past you don’t find acceptable.
On a first date, you’re seeing the best of someone. Six months later…
Spoiler alert! Continue reading only if you have seen the movie!


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Behind the Scenes Interview Spoiler Alert
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