Documentaries
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How 'Catfish' Changed Eight People's Lives And Rewired Our Understanding Of Online Existence

Updated October 1, 2019 15.3k views14 items

The movie Catfish, a documentary thriller about an online relationship, first premiered in theaters on September 17, 2010. By following an online relationship between Nev Schulman and Megan Faccio, the film brought to light certain negative aspects of social media that had not yet been considered in mainstream culture. The film gained notoriety across the US, eventually sparking the MTV reality show, Catfish

Yaniv "Nev" Schulman is a New York-based photographer and the protagonist of Catfish. His older brother Ariel "Rel" Schulman and filmmaking partner Henry Joost are the brains behind the operation. As filmmakers, Rel and Henry often recorded Nev's antics, and as Nev developed an increasingly convoluted online relationship with a family in Michigan, Rel began recording more and more, hoping to create a short film out of Nev's growing online network.

Rel and Henry thought they would follow a simple story with a happy ending. Instead, the trio became caught in a complex web of deception and lies. They used their skills to uncover a dark secret, eventually turning their work into the groundbreaking documentary.

Today, catfishing is an expected element of online dating, as evidenced by some of the creepiest Catfish episodes. Though catfish stories aren't particularly new, the phenomenon wasn't widely considered until the documentary. By creating a compelling and honest narrative, the Catfish documentary opened people's eyes to the more nefarious consequences of social media and exposed the simple mechanisms of deception often found in online accounts. 

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  • Photos Of ‘Megan’ Were Actually An Unwitting Model And Photographer Named Aimee Gonzales

    Photo: Catfish / Universal Pictures

    The Catfish documentary didn't just affect the few people who were directly involved. The high-profile nature of the film also took a toll on Aimee Gonzales, the real-life "Megan." Aimee is a model and photographer living in Portland, OR. Angela used Aimee's photos to trick Nev into believing that he was talking to a beautiful young girl. Angela also used photos of Aimee's husband and other members of her familial and social circles to create a convincing online persona for Megan.

    After Catfish was released, Aimee's photos were all over TV and movie screens, many of which feature provocative poses and semi-unclothed portraits. Angela found Aimee's various online accounts, took quotes directly from the model, and even used Aimee's young daughter's name in a few of her lies. 

    Although Aimee initially considered legal recourse against Angela, she eventually decided against it. Aimee used the positive publicity from Catfish to her advantage, expanding her career in the aftermath of the film. She also dealt with the constant fear of being impersonated again, however, often scouring the internet and reporting fake accounts in order to keep her identity safe. 

  • The Term ‘Catfish’ Came From An Evocative Metaphor From Angela’s Husband

    Photo: Catfish / Universal Pictures

    After meeting Angela, Nev also spent time with Angela's husband Vince in an attempt to understand the complex web of lies Angela created. In explaining her actions, Vince used an evocative metaphor about cod and catfish.

    He explained that people used to bring cod from Alaska all the way to China, and the long journey stripped the fish of its flavor. Eventually, they realized that putting catfish in the tanks with the cod kept the cod moving, which ensured they were still active when they arrived at their destination. 

    Vince explained that some people work to keep you on your toes, and asserted that life was more interesting with those people because they keep you guessing and wondering. Without them, everyone would end up as bland and tasteless as the cod that used to arrive in China.

  • Angela Was Enthusiastic About The Film Even After Her Ruse Was Discovered 

    Photo: 20/20 / ABC News

    Despite Angela's enthusiastic agreement to the film, in the aftermath of the release she avoided most contact with the press. In her first interview with ABC News' 20/20, Angela said she was a master of deception, claiming she was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Though it is possible that Angela does struggle with schizophrenia, she had previously lied to Nev about a cancer diagnosis. She claimed she was undergoing chemotherapy when he ambushed her. 

    In the interview, Angela explained that she originally created the online persona of Megan after she was met with harsh criticism regarding her artwork. When she posed as a young girl, people were significantly nicer with their feedback. She eventually developed a preoccupation with Nev, and created Megan so Nev would have someone more age-appropriate to talk to. 

    Angela claimed full responsibility for the events of the film. She admitted to manipulating the men and stated that she always thought the story would make a great movie, even before she knew that Rel and Henry were filming.

  • Many People Didn't Believe The Documentary Was Real

    Photo: Catfish / Universal Pictures

    Catfish was met with scads of praise coupled with a fair amount of criticism. In fact, many people didn't believe the events of the documentary actually took place. Instead, they accused the filmmakers of fabricating the story and casting actors to play out the elaborate scheme. Those who did believe the events of the film still posited that many elements of truth were manipulated for the sake of the narrative. 

    Despite the unanticipated backlash, the filmmakers maintained the total veracity of the film. They admitted to recapturing some important elements on camera, but they still say the story wasn't doctored, and that Nev was genuinely duped through an online persona.