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Film Review of Catfish
By Robert DeLauro, MSW, ACSW

Not that long ago, it was difficult to see a good documentary film, but opportunities for viewing them are improving. The most predictable sources are DVDs and some TV channels (e.g., Sundance, IFC, HBO). There are still some special theaters that offer documentaries along with other “indie” movies. But in general, a full-length documentary film will get very little play at the local multiplex.

To my surprise, in the case of the documentary Catfish, I was able to see it at my local corporate cineplex. Hopefully, you will have the same easy opportunity; it will be well worth it.

The story involves Nev Shulman, the younger brother of one of the filmmakers. He is befriended by Abby, an 8-year-old girl in northern Michigan with special artistic talent. She asks for Nev’s permission to paint one of his photographs that she saw in a magazine. From New York City, Nev strikes up a supportive fraternal friendship with Abby, and she sends him incredible paintings based on his photographs.

Nev chats online with Abby’s mom, Angela, and establishes a rapport with her. Nev becomes acquainted via Facebook with Abby’s 19-year-old sister, Megan (also living in northern Michigan). This social networking site allows Nev to view photographs of the very attractive Megan and her other family members and friends. A budding romance develops between Nev and Megan from the comfort of their computers. It is inevitable that Nev (and the filmmakers) must visit Michigan and, of course, that is when things get interesting.

I have tried to describe the story of Catfish without revealing too much and ruining half the fun—only half because, in addition to the twists in the film’s intriguing plot, Catfish also raises important questions that should be discussed about our digital social world. For example, what are the consequences of the Internet and social networking websites such as Facebook and Twitter for our psychological well-being, relationships, self-expression, and social skills? What is changing about our perceptions of privacy and our prospects for it? Will social deception become a more common and troubling problem? These questions are not just idle speculation; Internet addiction, gambling, and cyberbullying are just a few of the social and psychological consequences of new technology that are challenging social workers.

Catfish demonstrates how the Internet and social networking sites provide additional opportunities to experiment with new identities. The film provides an example of various technologies—digital photos and phones, the Internet, Facebook—being used to manage a new relationship that does not involve any personal contact. We are always managing our relationships, but the new technology provides added efficiencies.

For a social worker, posting a profile on a social networking site poses an array of risks. Information, photos, and social chatter may seem like innocent fun and harmless self-expression. But when it becomes public and available to coworkers, people you network with, and current and potential clients, it can tarnish your professional image.

There is no doubt that finding and providing resources and information—an important facet of social work practice—is improved as a result of the Internet. Research opportunities are also enhanced. But relationships, the heart of social work practice, are fundamentally changed without face-to-face contact and real-time activity. The documentary Catfish presents a warning about this risk in an entertaining format.

— Robert DeLauro, MSW, ACSW, is a freelance writer and consultant with the Labor Management Project in New York City.