Humanizing the Inhuman – on Paravel and Castaing-Taylor’s Caniba
Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s latest documentary Caniba opens with a warning: this film “does not seek to justify or legitimize” what it shows on screen. Redundant as it may seem, it is a fundamental reminder. Caniba is a 96-minute look at Issei Sagawa, a Japanese man who in 1981 murdered 25-year-old Dutch and fellow Sorbonne student Renée Hartevelt, and then proceeded to rape her, dismembering her body and eating it for two days, until he was finally busted by the French police while trying to dispose of the mutilated corpse in a public park’s lake.
That the directors do not intend to justify or legitimize an act of such unspeakable violence should come across as a relative self-evident point. But it also begs a fundamental question, which makes the disclaimer so interesting: how exactly should one talk about an act as horrific as Issei’s?
Judged mentally unfit to stand trial, Issei spent six years in a French asylum before he was sent back to Japan after charges against him were dropped, and has since lived off his macabre celebrity status, looked after by his older brother, Jun, after a stroke left him semi-paralysed and homebound in the outskirts of Tokyo. Issei’s horrific claim to fame led him to dabble in porn movies and pen extremely graphic autobiographical mangas, and inspired songs from The Stranglers (“La Folie”) and the Rolling Stones (“Too Much Blood”).
Paravel and Castaing-Taylor are aware of Issei’s disturbing notoriety, but unlike the pop culture that fed off the gore fascination that surrounded his crime, Caniba does not sensationalize Issei’s story, nor does it reduce him to a spectacle. What makes Caniba so unsettling is that, for an hour and a half, we are invited to inhabit Issei’s world.
Speaking after Caniba’s Venice world premiere, before the documentary was shown in Toronto and New York, Paravel and Castaing-Taylor stressed their goal to address Issei as a man, and to shatter the caricature previous portraits had provided of him. Caniba shows, accordingly, archive footage of Issei’s childhood years, and allows him to share delirious confessions. We see young Issei play with his brother, we hear about his fascination for all things chocolate, about his fear of death, and even meet Mr. Beaver, a stuffed animal his brother gave him as a gift, and which Issei holds on to with a certain childlike tenderness.
While other accounts had been content with depicting a monster that was distant from us, and from which we were somehow protected, Caniba reminds us Issei is, first and foremost, a man with whom we share more things than we may be willing to admit.
In so doing, Paravel and Castaing-Taylor problematize to what extent cannibalism really is as alien to our nature. To be sure, Caniba does not go as far as to suggest cannibalism is a drive we all share, but it does raise several thought-provoking parallels with religion (opening with a telling excerpt from the Gospel of St. John: “whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me”) and sexuality, with Issei elaborating on the ways in which cannibalistic desires are an extension of primal sexual urges.
And this is why Caniba could only work as an ethnography: only a complete immersion in Issei’s world can shed light on some awkwardly moving aspects of his life which – without softening his crime – do bring Issei uncomfortably closer to our scrutiny. The distance between the audience and Issei is bridged visually, too. Paravel and Castaing-Taylor shoot Issei through extreme close-ups. The screen, in a sense, becomes flesh, with Iseei’s face filling up the whole frame and his brother at times appearing behind him, almost always out of focus. It is a claustrophobic, yet captivating choice.
In 2005 Castaing-Taylor founded Harvard University’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, of which Paravel is another leading figure, and the duo had already shown their flair for immersive cinematic experiences in their 2012 breakthrough Leviathan, which offered an ethnographic in-depth look at a fishing boat off the coast of Massachusetts, with cameras recording all around the vessel to provide a multisensorial cinematic experience. Caniba evokes a similar visceral feeling, all the more striking considering the subject. Not an aseptic lecture on cannibalism, but a more intimate look at the topic via a portrait of a man and his urges. Staring blankly into space à la Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, Issei claims he first felt a cannibalistic desire when he saw his pregnant mother have a miscarriage, confesses he wishes his victim could eat him, that he was “disappointed not to be dead” after he was done devouring her, and that he is (apparently) aware of his madness.
But Issei is not Caniba’s only character. Paravel and Castaing-Taylor leave Jun to chaperone the audience into his brother’s horrific world, and it is Jun’s questions that prompt Issei to open up about his fascination for human flesh. There are moments when Jun seems to treat his brother like a demented child, teasing him and threatening to cut his chocolate supplies while looking apologetically at the camera as if to beg forgiveness for his madness, and there are others when his disgust toward his brother’s manga and cannibalistic fantasies (“this is shit – it makes me want to vomit”) leaves room for a certain fascination for the horror Issei committed. Jun too engages in masochistic practices, and offers Paravel and Castaing-Taylor a sickening demonstration of his efforts to find the “perfect pain” cutting his armpits with knives and wrapping his body in barbed wire in front of the camera.
They are nauseating and extremely graphic moments, but they are also the height of Caniba’s ethnographic merit. Paravel and Castaing-Taylor said Jun had never seen the manga penned by his brother before the day they filmed him flicking through it, and Issei did not know anything about his brother’s masochism until Jun told him about it during the shooting. The documentary turned into an opportunity for both to open up to each other. “It took me a lot of courage to tell you,” Jun tells Issei about his self-torture, before noting how it pales before his brother’s cannibalism: “I guess I am not qualified enough for you… I mean nothing to you.” Issei will later reply, “I can only live because I have a brother like you.” For a documentary about an act of revolting monstrosity, the fact that these warmer moments emerge so organically is evidence of Paravel and Castaing-Taylor’s directorial bravado.
Caniba is a difficult watch to stomach, but it is also a one-of-a-kind experience, a look at a topic as sickening as it is mysterious, and which the duo filmed in an unflinching and humane way.