Behind the Profile
“How many friends do we have in real life? Seven, maybe eight?” asked Yaniv Schulman when we spoke by phone last Monday night. Schulman had just returned from Utah, where his documentary "Catfish" debuted at the Sundance Film Festival to a standing ovation and popular audience response. “But on Facebook, it’s 800 friends,” said Schulman. “We all want to feel liked and we get that on the Internet.”
I saw "Catfish" in December, before it debuted at the festival, when Schulman, 25, and co-directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost screened the film in Manhattan. I was awed and disturbed by the story about Schulman's relationship with Megan, an 18-year-old girl from Michigan who contacts him through Facebook after her eight-year-old sister Abby discovers published photographs he had taken and paints acrylic versions of them. Abby sends the paintings to Schulman, initiating a pen-pal like correspondence between them and a romance between him and Megan.
With the convenience of handheld cameras, the directors say they’re able to film everything today, even if it’s just footage to upload and save on their hard drives for future use. As Schulman and Megan’s relationship develops and he begins to believe what he feels for her is love, the camera focuses on him. As suspicious questions about Megan begin to surface, the Internet barrier has to be crossed if the truth about the person behind the profile picture is to be reveled. With a particularly interesting story on their hands, the directors take to the road, unannounced to Megan, to meet her face to face.
Though the film documents Schulman's unique experience, the movie’s message is that relationships made online are done so in a blinding confine—one that is unable to replace the reality of what’s experienced in the flesh.