In case you haven’t already heard, CiTR 101.9FM has recently released its second wave of radio documentaries with this season’s central focus being the concept of community. Under that umbrella, topics range from the history of Vancouver’s underground tunnel system beneath Chinatown, to an investigation of the perplexing “free speech” movement by confrontational right-wing conservatives happening in our very own backyard at UBC. One of these documentaries of particular interest is The Life and Death of Jerimiah Zohar, produced by Josh Gabert-Doyon and Claire Smale, which follows an unbelievable story that sounds more like an episode of The Twilight Zone or Black Mirror than it does a reality.
We’ve all heard stories of “catfishing,” and for those few who haven’t, this phenomenon is when somebody pretends to be someone they aren’t over social media, usually in the attempt of manipulating or starting a romantic relationship with someone online. As ridiculous as it is, it’s more common than you would imagine because there is even an MTV show devoted to this very kind of thing. However, in the case of Jerimiah Zohar the masquerade of catfishing was taken to such an extreme extent that involved not one, but over 50 stolen identities.
Unbeknownst to his victims, in actuality, Jerimiah Zohar was the replicated Facebook page of Oli Levy, a personal friend of Smale and Gabert-Doyon. But not only was Oli’s identity appropriated, but so were his friends’ profiles (including Smale and Gabert-Doyon) all of which were copied under completely different names. Amongst the fake profiles there were fake relationships, inside jokes, and other fictitious interconnections that helped create the illusion of Jerimiah’s social life online. To say the least, the amount of effort that went into bringing these characters alive (particularly Jerimiah) was certainly impressive, especially considering the fact that there was only ever a single puppetmaster.
What’s really spectacular about this documentary is how Gabert-Doyon and Smale manage to unfold this incredibly complex situation with a keen attention to detail as they unweave the convoluted web of lies to reveal this imposter. For the most part, the documentary focuses on the real-world implications of Jerimiah Zohar’s existence, not only for Oli Levy, but for a teenaged girl named Heather, who’s online courtship with Zohar lasted over two years, beginning in 2011. Obviously, the relationship between Heather and Zohar was very real, and the two would text message each other constantly, but never spoke over the phone or by video. When Oli eventually contacted Heather to explain the situation, both of them felt a strange sense of guilt, but what were they to feel guilty about? Both of them were innocent, but both had been manipulated by this mysterious third party.
On a side note, only 30 years ago, people thought that we would have flying cars and hoverboards by now (those things under your feet with motorized wheels don’t count). Instead, the largest technological advancement, for better or for worse, has been the creation and integration of our online social platforms, giving us the ability to instantly connect with whomever (or whatever) we want to, wherever we want to, at the touch of a screen. Even so, it’s almost absurd to think that, for some of us, long-term romantic relationships have now diminished to text-only conversations. But anyways…
In order not to spoil the story, I will refrain from further detailing what happens to Jerimiah Zohar and leave it for you to find out for yourself. With that said, I can say that this documentary raises so many questions about our livelihood in the digital era: Why have we placed so much importance into extending our social lives virtually? Who exactly has access to the information that we have shared online? How many other innocent people are being tricked into farcical relationships with somebody who is hiding behind a fake profile? Are we able to trust the people that we connect with remotely over the internet?
One thing’s for sure: listening to The Life and Death of Jerimiah Zohar will make you think twice about sending a DM to that cute rando on Instagram.
You can subscribe to CiTR’s Documentary Series by searching “CiTR Docs” on Stitcher or iTunes, or visit citr.ca to stream and download. For more information about CiTR’s Documentary Series and profiles of upcoming documentaries, visit citr.ca