Spoiler warning: This post contains complete spoilers for the film Catfish.
The Truth 2.0
In 2007, 22-year-old New York photographer Yaniv “Nev” Schulman received an adorable Myspace message from a young girl in Michigan. Abby Wesselman, 12 years old, wanted to show him some of her paintings, including one based on one of his recent photos, a striking image of a ballet dancer holding a ballerina aloft in a field.
Then Nev received a message from Abby’s mom, Angela, informing him that Abby was really 8 years old and wasn’t supposed to be online by herself. Now Nev was even more impressed by Abby’s art. This kid had talent! Real talent, not Marla Olmstead talent! Soon, he was taking ballet photos specifically for Abby’s paintbrush, and getting acquainted with Angela’s fascinating family via Facebook and phone calls.
The Wesselmans lived in the microdot community of Ishpeming, Michigan, and were a lot like the family in You Can’t Take It With You. Angela, a beautiful sloe-eyed brunette, painted and rode horses. Her son Alex was a rock musician. Daughter Megan was a veterinarian who danced, wrote songs, painted, played multiple instruments, kept horses, and did some modeling in her spare time. Abby, of course, was an art prodigy whose paintings sold for up to $7000 apiece. The family had recently purchased an old warehouse on Ishpeming’s main street, and were turning it into a gallery to showcase Abby’s work.
Nev’s brother Ariel (“Rel”), a filmmaker, was intrigued by Abby’s artwork and her talent-laden family. He decided to document the creative process going on between Nev and Abby, though Nev wasn’t enthused about the idea. He went along with it, he later said, because he felt aimless and bored. He had recently dropped out of college to pursue a full-time career in photography, and had to film bar mitzvahs on weekends to make ends meet.
They didn’t have the funds to actually travel to Michigan, so for the next several months, Rel and his creative partner Henry Joost basically just filmed Nev’s phone conversations with the Wesselman family and recorded Nev’s thoughts on Abby’s art.
Angela considered Nev an artistic mentor for her daughter. She even offered to pay him for his advice. When he declined, Abby sent several of her paintings to Nev as gifts, along with half of a $1000 prize she won in an art competition.
Rel and Henry also began to document the burgeoning romance between Nev and Angela’s 19-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, Megan Faccio. Megan, the vet, lived on a small farm not far from her parents’ house. The photos she posted on Facebook and sent to Nev showed a lovely girl with luxuriantly long, honey-gold hair. She had the lithe body of a dancer and the soulful eyes of an artist. Intriguingly for Nev, she hadn’t dated much and remained a virgin.
Chatting online soon led to flirting, exchanging photos, and a little sexting. They talked longingly of Meeting in Real Life someday.
There were warning signs along the way, of course. Curiously, though Angela had posted a video of Abby painting wild horses, the family never webcammed. Angela’s husband, Vince Pierce, looked young enough to be Megan’s brother. There were lots of photos of Megan on her Facebook profile, but no family photos – and few photos of Angela. The only clear image of Angela the New Yorkers had ever seen was a painting done by Megan.
Nev’s mother was skeptical. She pointed out that Megan seemed too young to be a veterinarian with her own home. Nev waved away her concerns.
That summer, about eight months after the first message from Abby, a MIRL started to look possible. The Schulmans and Joost were traveling to Colorado to film dancers at the Vail International Dance Festival, and if they drove they would be able to swing through Ishpeming on their way home. Rel and Henry packed up their film gear and mounted a point-and-shoot cam on the dashboard of the car to capture the road trip.
In their Colorado lodgings, Nev chatted with Megan on his laptop. She had been posting MP3s of herself and Angela singing some favourite songs and playing various instruments, so one evening the three guys listened to them. One song sung by Angela, “Downhill”, was fantastic. Megan accompanied her mom on guitar.
When Megan offered to take requests, Ariel and Henry asked her to record and post “Tennessee Stud”. She was a horsewoman, after all.
Within thirty minutes, Megan’s rendition of the song appeared on Facebook. It also sounded good, but the guys were still crazy about the song “Downhill” and wanted to know more about it. Nev googled some of the lyrics and found Amy Kuney’s original recording of “It’s All Downhill from Here” on iTunes. The song had been featured on the soundtrack of the teen soap opera One Tree Hill.
To their astonishment, the guys gradually realized that Kuney’s version sounded identical to Megan and Angela’s.
Rel began searching for covers of “Tennessee Stud”, and on YouTube he found one by Suzanna Choffel that perfectly matched Megan’s. Clearly, she and/or Angela had been snagging songs from the ‘Net and posting them as their own.
It would be all downhill from there.
The three men agreed not to confront Megan or Angela right away. They would continue to play along, and do some investigating.
On camera, Nev accepted the situation with good humour. He laughed in embarrassment over the sexting, and joked that he was probably having an online relationship with another guy. But discovering Megan’s deception had been traumatic for him.
Phone calls from Megan were now decidedly awkward and strained, with Nev keeping his end of the conversations as brief as possible.
Nev and Ariel investigated the warehouse gallery at 100 North Main Street in Ishpeming. It was a former department store that had been vacant for four years, and according to the real estate agent, it was still on the market.
The group traveled fom Vail to Ishpeming with a lot of questions on their minds. When Nev told Megan he might be in her area very soon, she said one of her horses was giving birth. She would have to be in the stables all night.
Upon reaching the outskirts of Ishpeming after dark, the trio’s first stop was the rural mailbox used by Megan. This was supposedly her home address, but the box stood in front of a lot occupied only by a barn, which was completely empty.
The rest of the family lived in a comfortable, farm-style house in town, with bay windows and a cheery red door. Angela responded to Nev’s knock the next morning, hesitantly. She was a rather plump woman with waist-length auburn hair; pleasant-looking, but hardly the elegant beauty of Megan’s painting.
Angela nervously explained that Megan was many miles away, at her farm. Moments later, Vince showed up on the porch and introduced himself. He was an average middle-aged man, not the young guy in Megan’s photo. He seemed to know nothing about his wife’s online deceptions; he was under the impression that Nev was his wife’s “primary customer”, having purchased a number of her paintings (which were actually sent to him as gifts).
Inside the house, Angela gestured to a partially-completed painting of a woman in a dress and said it was Abby’s latest work.
As it turned out, Abby was not a miniature Degas. The paintings were Angela’s. This became evident when Abby told Nev she didn’t paint very often, and identified “her” wild horse painting as her mother’s work.
There was no sign of Angela’s son, but it turned out she and Vince were the sole caregivers for Vince’s profoundly disabled twin sons. Angela had never mentioned them.
At one point during the visit, when Angela was out of sight, Megan texted Nev to explain that the horses were keeping her very busy, but she would try to see him as soon as possible. “Don’t leave!” she pleaded. Nev wondered why she wouldn’t phone him.
That night, while the guys rested at a local hotel, Megan sent another message revealing that she was an alcoholic. She wouldn’t be able to see Nev because she had just checked into a rehab clinic.
With Angela’s “perfect” life lying unraveled at their feet, the guys decided it was time to put an end to the game.
On the second day of their visit Angela, still seeming quite shy and reticent, took her guests to a horse farm to watch Abby ride. Nev gently asked her why she had created so many stories about her life.
She let go of the deception with surprising ease…almost. She still insisted that Megan was real, though her photos were those of a “family friend”, and that she really was in rehab. This turned out to be false. The lovely girl in the photos was a professional model/photographer from the Northwest, Aimee Gonzalez. She had no knowledge of the Wesselman family and was completely unaware that Angela had been using her Facebook and modeling photos to flesh out “Megan Faccio”.
The previous day, Angela said she was undergoing chemo for uterine cancer. Also false.
Nev was forgiving, and it’s easy to understand why. It would be nearly impossible not to sympathize, to some degree, with this woman. She was living a demanding, isolated life full of imperfection and frustrated dreams.
Angela was embarrassed and seemingly contrite about her behaviour. With admirable candour, she explained how she created at least a dozen Facebook profiles to give the appearance of a small network of family and friends, used a second cell phone for “Megan’s” calls, and adopted a high breathy voice for Megan. Like Mary Shieler, she cited boredom as her primary motivation. “I didn’t have anything else in my life… I didn’t have anything else to do,” she told 20/20.
But unlike Mary Shieler, Angela Wesselman-Pierce didn’t leave a trail of death and devastation in her wake. In fact, just as Vince conveys in the anecdote that gives the film Catfish its title, her deception and its unmasking made everyone involved a little better and stronger. Angela began to sell her paintings online. Schulman and Joost created an acclaimed documentary that premiered at Sundance.
Nev didn’t fare so well, at first. Even though the physical distance between himself and Megan would have made a long-term relationship almost impossible, he had strong feelings for her. The realization that this girl was a figment of someone’s imagination hit him hard.
Upon returning to New York, Nev got back together with an on-and-off girlfriend, Katie, and told his brother he needed some time to recover.
Catfish chronicles Nev’s artistic collaboration with Abby, his romance with Megan, and the fateful trip to Michigan. Much like TalHotBlond, it was marketed as a suspense thriller documentary full of shocking twists. The filmmakers and their subject, however, view it as a story of love, loneliness, and the complexities of online relationships. They clearly made an effort to portray Angela Wesselman-Pierce as a woman worthy of sympathy and understanding. The film even ends with a coda that despite Angela’s false claims of having cancer and having a daughter in rehab, she and Nev remain friends on Facebook.
It’s difficult not to have mixed feelings about Catfish. On one hand, it’s possible that being caught has provided the impetus for Angela Wesselman-Pierce to re-evaluate her life and make changes to it that would not otherwise have occurred to her. Reaching out to a photographer indicates that she wanted to forge some connection to other artistic people, and she now has the opportunity to do that.
On the other hand, one has to examine the ethical dimensions of filming a woman who may have mental issues that prevent her from making sound decisions, a woman who (as Nev realized) was probably infatuated with a much younger man she had never met. This is underlined by the fact that the deception didn’t end when Nev left Michigan. Angela was still insisting she had a daughter named Megan in rehab, and back in New York Nev received an email from the real Megan. He asked her to call him at the office of his brother’s production company. He never received a call. The email account, he learned, was another of Angela’s fronts. Confronted, she confessed that she didn’t want the relationship with Nev to end.
Will Angela Wesselman-Pierce someday regret her participation in the film? One wonders, too, how little Abby will fare when she’s older. Will having her mother outed as an online master of deception become embarrassing and burdensome to her, if it hasn’t already? Where, exactly, should we draw the line between private drama and public accountability?
These certainly weren’t the only questions raised by reviewers of Catfish.
The Truth 2.1
Catfish premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January. From its very first screenings, viewers expressed skepticism about the entire film. How could it be, they asked, that three New Yorkers were genuinely duped by a Michigan housewife for almost a year? How could anyone believe “Vince” was old enough to be Megan’s stepdad? Why would a director want to film his brother’s daily life in the first place? And isn’t it convenient that some of the film’s most startling revelations, like Megan’s bogus song covers, just happened to take place when the camera was rolling?
Morgan Spurlock called it “the best fake documentary I’ve seen”. The New York Times review described it as “coy about its motives” and full of “faux-naïf manipulations”. Movieline.com’s Kyle Bucchanan bluntly accused the filmmakers of knowing Angela was lying all along. A reviewer at the blog Very Aware pointed out that the photo of Vince and Megan was posted to Facebook in March 2008, months after the events of Catfish took place. In comments attached to these reviews, people have speculated that Angela, Aimee Gonzalez, and the Schulmans/Joost are fame-hungry artists who collaborated on a hoax. One Movieline commenter claims Angela Pierce is not only a professional artist, but a filmmaker whose work has appeared at small festivals. She even has a production company: Panorama Management Group, LLC in Ipsheming, Michigan. While it’s true that Panorama “respresents” Angela, the operation appears to be a one-woman show. And though Angela listed herself as a filmmaker as late as October of this year, I have found no films to her credit.
On the other hand, Dana Stevens of Slate expressed the view that the events in the film were probably real, though possibly re-created or compressed to some extent.
Other reviewers, like New York magazine’s David Edelstein, freely admitted they didn’t know whether or not there was hoaxery in the film.
The Schulmans and Joost have emphatically denied any fakery. In fact, they insist, they weren’t even planning to make a feature documentary until they discovered Megan’s songs weren’t her own. They just wanted to film interesting events in Nev’s life. Once they decided to make the movie, they re-created only the computer screenshots.
Nev’s mom vouched for him. But then, so did James Frey’s mom.
If the filmmakers did any hoaxing in the production of Catfish, their film’s pivotal scene may prove its undoing. This month, Threshold Media filed a lawsuit against the filmmakers, their producers, and their distributors, maintaining that they should pay licensing fees for Amy Kuney’s “All Downhill From Here”. Schulman and Joost justified their inclusion of the song as fair use, since Catfish is a documentary. With the lawsuit, Threshold is basically challenging the film’s “documentary” status.
These days, who wouldn’t be jaded? We’ve been inundated by mockumentaries like Fubar and Incident at Loch Ness, recreated “reality” shows like Operation Repo (which airs, ironically, on TruTV), Hollywood thrillers “based on true stories” that never happened (The Fourth Kind), movies that convincingly blend truth with fantasy (The Social Network), and PR stunts cleverly disguised as home movies or nervous breakdowns (Lonelygirl15, the tantrum-throwing bride who hacked off her hair, Joaquin Pheonix). Not to mention the rash of “autobiographical” novels and phoney memoirs: Love and Consequences, Sarah, A Million Little Pieces/My Friend Leonard, An Angel at the Fence, Surviving with Wolves.
Then there are credible allegations that Michael Moore staged and fabricated incidents in his award-winning documentaries Roger & Me and Bowling for Columbine. And a revealing statement by Aaron Sorkin, screenwriter of The Social Network: “My fidelity is to the story I’m telling, and not to the who, what, where, why of the story.”
So skepticism is definitely warranted. After reviewing the allegations against Catfish, however, I don’t think the Schulmans and Henry Joost perpetrated a full-on hoax. The deception at the core of the movie is real, in my opinion. The youthful inexperience of the filmmakers can account for many of the “red flags” noted by reviewers. It seems quite likely that in their determination to make a gripping first film, they left too much of their own skepticism and doubt on the cutting room floor, leaving audiences to believe they were either gullible buffoons or cruel hoaxers.
The most problematic issue surrounding Catfish remains its ethical dimensions. Thrusting an unbalanced, small-town housewife onto the international film scene is not without its risks, and Angela Wesselman-Pierce’s response to her celebrity has been mixed. She did not attend the film’s premiere at Sundance, and for several months declined to be interviewed. Her only media appearance was on 20/20 in October.