Inside and outside the Facebook fishtank


A lot of articles and reviews about the new American documentary Catfish will contain some form of the disclaimer that 'The less you know about it beforehand, the better'. It's true that this suspenseful, fascinating and heart-wrenching film gains a lot of currency from the trump cards it keeps tucked up its sleeve until the most opportune moment.

In truth, it doesn't take a genius to work out even from a suitably vague synopsis that it's a film in which everything is not as it seems. It starts out as a sweet and funny document of the long-distance, online romance between a young man, Yaniv Schulman, and a 19-year-old dancer named Megan. Gradually it turns into ... something else.

continues below...

'It's not a horror movie, but there are scary parts. It's not a comedy but there are funny parts. It might make you cry. It's hard to talk about', says Henry Joost, co-director of the film with Yaniv's brother, Ariel. 'The film is about an experience we had, and part of that is that we never knew where it was headed. That's the best way to see the movie.'

Suffice it to say that the film manages to be at once a cautionary tale and a poignant tribute to the power and authenticity of online relationships. It interrogates the methods of selectivity and fabrication that can be involved in the creation of online personas, but also reveals how deep and genuine virtual relationships can be.

'Niv doesn't regret anything that happened,' says Ariel Schulman. 'If a "virtual relationship" affects you emotionally, then it's not virtual at all.

'A lot of people say they've committed Facebook suicide [the phenomenon of deleting one's Facebook profile in one fell swoop] since seeing the film,' he adds. 'Even I've scaled back. But it doesn't mean I'm not open to meeting the love of my life on Facebook ... You can't just close yourself off, because that is the way people connect.'

The almost total integration of 'real' and 'virtual' worlds in contemporary Western society is reinforced visually in Catfish, through the use of Google Earth and other graphic online interfaces to transition between scenes and physical locations, effectively weaving these disparate fabrics into a seamless garment.

'A lot of the story takes place online,' says Schulman. 'Basically Niv was in love with someone who lived really far away. A lot of their relationship was through the internet. So when it came time to create the graphic exposition, the transitions in the film, it only made sense that those occurred online the way Niv and Megan experienced them.'

The film's most appealing and surprising developments occur deep in the final act, and it would be a shame to say too much about these. Needless to say that after the adrenalin rush of making the film, the emotional fallout for Niv revealed just how authentic his experience had been, regardless of any lies that may have been told.

'When we got home and started editing the film, he lost control a little bit and didn't want to be involved', says Schulman. 'He sank into empty depression. It took him a couple of months to get back on his feet. And now ... he's better than ever. He's come out on top.'

It's no surprise. Loss and grief are, after all, formative experiences, in or outside of the Facebook fishtank. 

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. He is a contributor to Kidzone, Inside Film and The Big Issue magazines, and his articles and reviews have appeared in Melbourne's The Age and Brisbane's Courier-Mail.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Catfish, Facebook, Facebook suicide, Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman, virtual relationships



submit a comment

Existing comments


Thank you very much for the article. You have presented the issue so well. And I find the content extremely useful.

God bless! James

James Uravil | 27 January 2011  

So glad that I've resisted 'Facebook' - such vanity.

Joyce | 27 January 2011  

Great article. I too, deleted my Facebook profile; I never liked Facebook, but a horribly painful virtual relationship and its breakup spurred me to finally leave. I hope I never return. I want to focus on offline relationships; I have had more than enough of futile online friendships/relationships - they just never worked for me. I prefer non-virtual reality.

Andrea | 18 December 2013  

Similar Articles

On the waterfront in Genoa

  • Helen Koukoutsis and Jennifer Compton
  • 25 January 2011

A young man, made of ebony, from Senegal or Somalia or the Côte d'Ivoire, sat down beside me gracefully… I gave him the twenty euro that I had to hand. Stammering, ill at ease, he asked me what I had in mind.


The back to school blues

  • Brian Matthews
  • 20 January 2011

BACK TO SCHOOL shout the billboards and shop window displays and it's still only mid January. I suppose this infuriates present day kids as much as it used to stir my juvenile ire. For former teachers, 'Back to School' arouses other, less youthful associations.



Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up