In March last year, the director Felicity Morris woke up to about 25 WhatsApp messages from convicted conman Shimon Hayut. At the time, Morris was working on her directorial debut – a documentary about Hayut (aka, Simon Leviev) and some of the women he conned out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, via an elaborate romance scam.
As you’d probably expect from someone whose lies are worthy of their own feature length film on Netflix, Leviev has been protesting his innocence. The frenzy of messages he sent Morris contained links to articles about how Leviev had been paid millions of dollars to appear in the film, the whole of which was a fabrication. The only fabrication, of course, was the articles, none of which appeared to be from a legitimate news source.
Morris’s film, The Tinder Swindler, is now on Netflix. It’s not just about Leviev though, it’s – more importantly – the story of Cecilie Fjellhoy, Pernilla Sjoholm, and Ayleen Charlotte, three of the women emotionally abused and financially ruined by a conman who posed as the perfect boyfriend.
In the film, we see – often through the media of text messages and voice notes – how Leviev, who finds all of his victims online, draws them into an addictive semi-fantasy world, full of champagne and flights on private jets. Though little do they know that all of this is being funded by a kind of dating pyramid scheme, in which Leviev convinces his girlfriends to max out credit cards and wrack up dizzying debts.
Morris tells me we have a tendency to judge women like these for their naivety, and assume that they must be “desperate”.
“But when I met Cecilie and Pernilla,” she says, “I realised that they’re a similar age to me – smart, smart girls. They’ve got social lives, and they’re incredibly open. Vulnerable.”
Morris even looks similar to Leviev’s victims, who are all young and blonde. Throughout the making of the documentary, she became close to the women. She came to feel protective of them, and responsible for helping them tell their stories in a way that empowered rather than further exploited them. This is what drew her to the story as a whole.
“I knew they would be amazing protagonists in a film of this kind,” she says, “where you need to sympathise with the victims at the heart of it.”
In recent years, the true crime genre has boomed. Consistently, a problem with the countless TV series, films and podcasts about some of the most sadistic people alive has been the framing of female victims and survivors. And when – as is regularly the case – survivors aren’t allowed to shape their own narrative, viewers and listeners are more likely to victim-blame. And this power dynamic between the documentarian and the subject is something Morris took into consideration while making The Tinder Swindler.
Director Felicity Morris, Pernilla Sjoholm, Cecilie Fjellhøy and Bernie Higgins at London screening of The Tinder Swindler Credit: Getty
“I think that there’s a fine balance,” she says. “These women are victims, but they’re also incredibly strong and have to own their own narrative.” Morris’s research calls with the three women featured in her film were “extensive”. “It wasn’t just about understanding what happened in the story,” she says, “it was also about understanding who these women are”.
Ayleen Charlotte, Morris tells me, was reluctant to relive her 18-month relationship with Leviev. While the other two women go into a great deal of detail about the early stages with Leviev, and falling in love, Charlotte was – understandably – less forthcoming. “So we said, OK,” says Morris, “what we’ll do is we’ll just bring you into the story where you feel strong, and when you feel powerful.” As a result, most of Charlotte’s story in the film is centred around bringing Leviev down.
In a satisfying montage soundtracked by Le Tigre, we find out how Charlotte – on realising Leviev’s deception – gets hold of piles of his designer clothes, and sells them on eBay. Her story is one of revenge. The entire documentary, in fact, in no small part an act of revenge. Or perhaps – seeing as Leviev has faced so few legal repercussions for his serial abuse and deception – a fairer word would be “justice”.
“People like this operate much better when they’re in the shadows,” says Miller. And what she’s done, with the cooperation of Leviev’s victims, is “spread his face across a vast global platform”. “Now, if you Google Simon Leviev, Cecilie and Pernilla’s story comes up. So he can’t do what he’s done before, which is meet women in bars or on Tinder”.
Ayleen Charlotte, one victim of the Tinder Swindler Credit: Netflix
In an age where public shaming has never been more public, Miller and her collaborators hope that they might at least damage Leviev’s career as a conman. “Certainly I think that the women in the film felt like the police weren’t doing enough for them personally,” says Miller, “And Simon knows that.” By travelling from country to country, changing his name, and convincing women to take out credit cards in their own names, Leviev has – so far – has served two short prison sentences in Finland and Israel, but, on release is straight back on Instagram posing as a billionaire and hunting for his next marks.
Con artists like Leviev have recently come to dominate the true crime genre. From Tortoise Media’s catfishing podcast Sweet Bobby, to Netflix’s new docu-series Puppet Master, about fake MI5 agent Robert Hendy-Freegard, there’s something about these stories that has us hooked. I ask Miller what that might be. “I think the idea of someone pretending to be someone they’re not is mentally intriguing,” she says, “Why would someone choose to live a life in a reality they created for themselves, and no one else is aware of? Why would you want to surround yourself with relationships that are totally fake?”
However, she’s strongly opposed to playing up the “mastermind” narrative, in which Leviev is some sort of genius who would’ve made a great stockbroker. “At the end of the day,” she says, “Simon is a bully”.
‘Why would you want to surround yourself with relationships that are totally fake?’: a scene from The Tinder Swindler Credit: Netflix
Yet Leviev’s motives became a kind of obsession for Miller, as she and the film’s producer had “endless discussions” about it over the kitchen table. “Who is he? What does he see when he looks in the mirror?” she asks. In fact, this is something that will be explored further in a spinoff podcast The Making of a Swindler, which Morris has been working on for the past few months. This, says Morris, will be a look at Leviev’s back story, and will include interviews with many more of his victims – both men and women.
Meanwhile, Miller is still in touch with the three women from the film. She tells me Pernilla and Cecilie have formed a close friendship – one which they joke has been the most expensive they’ve ever had. Cecilie has had to file for bankruptcy, and Ayleen has lost the money she was saving to buy an apartment. What’s more, all three women are preparing for the inevitable online backlash, after the documentary is released.
This is something they first faced back when their story was first told in the Norwegian press. “The internet sort of wanted to take them down and call them gold diggers, and blame them for what happened to them”, says Miller. This time around though, hopefully they’re better prepared. “Netflix has been providing amazing sessions for them,” says Miller. “You know, how to deal with negative publicity.
The swindler: Shimon Hayut, aka Simon Leviev, was the subject of an international manhunt Credit: Shutterstock/Tore Kristiansen
As his victims struggle financially and face a new wave of attack from the unsympathetic, Leviev is still out there living his best life. We see him, at the end of the film, playing up the uber-wealthy image once again – driving around in Ferraris. Recently, his girlfriend – an Israeli model – praised him in an interview. Understandably, this has been “a huge blow” for Leviev’s victims. “Their lives are never going to be the same again,” says Miller.
How Leviev will respond once the documentary is out is a looming unknown. “Obviously we feel cautious about what his reaction will be to the film,” says Miller, “We’re all talking at Netflix about what we may have coming our way”. Yet, back when Cecilie and Pernilla told their story to Norwegian national newspaper VG, Leviev threatened legal action and never followed up. “We’ll see if he takes the same approach with this, and the story being told on a much bigger scale,” says Miller.
In the meantime, Miller is on the lookout for her next big story. “I’ve really enjoyed making a film with women,” she says. Specifically, she’s interested in looking at (and challenging) the victim blaming that so often comes in response to women’s stories. I ask whether she’d make another film about a con artist. Although her instinct is to do something completely different, she hasn’t ruled out the idea. But the right conman would have to come along.
The Tinder Swindler is on Netflix now