Ariel Schulman, Henry Joost (back) and Nev Schulman

Interview with Catfish directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost


Documentaries have reached a crossroads. With the line between what is real and what is fabricated blurrier with every high profile release (I’m Still Here, anyone?), a guarded public have now placed a suspicious eye on a genre which was once relied upon to reveal the truth.

From such mistrust has come casualties, most disputed among them the sleeper hit Catfish, which premiered at the 2010 Sundance film festival to high acclaim and controversy.

Ariel Schulman, Henry Joost (back) and Yaniv Schulman

Directed by New York filmmakers Ariel “Rev” Schulman and Henry Joost, Catfish documents Rev’s brother Yaniv (affectionately known as Nev), as he begins a long-distance, online relationship with a young woman from rural Michigan.

Yet when things don’t appear to be what they seem…. we’ll leave it at that, with Catfish featuring a series of shocking twists which have caught audiences by surprise.

We tell everyone that the less you now about this movie, the better”, said Rev. “And that’s for your sake, that’s for your experience. Because the movie was our experience, and was basically how we felt, how it happened. We didn’t know a thing about it going into it. It was a total mystery which just unravelled in front of our eyes. And if you stay away from the spoilers, and stay away from the trailer, you might have that same experience, and that’s the most satisfying way of going about it.”

While plot points are best kept to a minimum, the rich themes and topics that make up the tasty morsel which is Catfish are for all to feast on, with the ambiguity and dangers of social networking, as well as the need to find connection in a world where the Facebook user with the most friends just might be the loneliest person on the planet, are just the type of subject matter which this unlikely of love stories has inspired.

Catfish still

“Throughout time people have been desperate to connect”, said Rev. “Human beings are societal by nature. There are plenty of loners out there, but in general we all sort of group together. So social networking basically allows that on a global scale, and people are just looking to connect. To make friends, fall in love, share ideas. Nev was looking to fall in love. He wanted that so badly and so did she. So they sort of found each other at the right place at the right time.”

Yet for all of its probing questions, Catfish also works as an investigative thriller, encouraged by a need to find the reasons behind a deception, with the trio hitting the road and travelling all the way to rural Michigan to confront the truth.

“That was the scariest moment of my life, when I drove into that driveway,” confessed Henry. “We made this decision to find out the truth, whatever the cost. And when we are there, driving at 3am in a part of the country we have never been before, it kind of sunk in and I was like…it was thrilling.”

Usually the role of the documentarian is that of the observer, never to interfere with the subject and their environment, but to capture reality as it unfolds in front of their eyes. Yet in the case of Catfish family was involved, and with such an intimate connection, standing on the sidelines was not an option.

Brothers Rev and Nev Schulman

“We just threw ourselves in there,” explained Rev. “We’re both subjects of the movie, and it would have been dishonest for us to stay back. We would have been bad friends, first of all….we were there with Nev, experiencing it with him. So the decisions he makes are partly our decisions to. Se we’re playing two roles at once, and I think we kind of like that type of documentary.”

It was a type of filmmaking which Henry is a fan of: “I’ve always felt that fly on the wall documentary, where you never hear the filmmakers voice, and the filmmaker seems like he or she is invisible, is not really possible…

There are these conversations, like the fight between Rel and Nev, where Rel has gotten so excited about making this movie, that he forgotten his brother is going through this really traumatic, emotional experience, and they need to get back and check with each other. That is what really does happen in making a documentary, and I think it is very important to show.”

But exactly how the film was made has been the source of controversy, with many accusing Catfish of fabricating scenes and exploiting certain individuals.

So what is the reason behind such cynicism and speculation? Does it come down to the before mentioned publics suspicion about the new state of documentary filmmaking?

Rev believes that it is: “Yeah. There are all of these fake docs. I think it’s a shame, because they are giving documentaries a bad name. You can’t just stand up and say ‘Ladies and gentlemen may I present you the documentary, and it is 100% true’. You have to spend an eternity repeating yourself that it is true, and I don’t know if anyone will certainly believe you.”

Yet Henry has another take on the controversy: “I think people are more media savvy now. They realise that you can shoot two hours of interviewing someone, and when you cut it together you can make them seem however you want. You have that power as a filmmaker to make them seem smart, or stupid, or incoherent. But to a certain extent documentaries can’t be the same as an objective truth. It’s impossible.”

You can make up your own mind, when Catfish is released on January 26th through Hopscotch Films.

All images provided by Hopscotch Films