By José Sarmiento Hinojosa
As someone who knows the story of Issei Sagawa (a Japanese cannibal who killed and ate his classmate Renée Hartevelt, and was subsequently released by reasons of insanity), revisiting the almost mythical tale yet again trough the lenses of Castaing-Taylor and Paravel (the duo behind the extraordinary Leviathan) is something of a release valve, a cathartic experience into the intimate realm of one of mankind most peculiar and disturbing characters, but also a lesson on humanity, on perception and listening. Sagawa is a part of popular culture, his image as a free man has been the one of a man plagued by infinite crime drama series and celebrity shows where he has shown his face, not as a born-again man, but as a criminal man who escaped his fate as a prisoner and now tries to coexist with the “normal” world. In his image, countless fan-fiction stories and books has been made; even David Cronenberg novel Consumed was inspired by this world of human meat-eaters, a perfect metaphor for this modern world aggressive culture of over consumption and alienation.
But what is most remarkable about Caniba is the way that Castaing-Taylor and Paravel paint an intimate portrait of the Japanese man through careful composed close up shots, giving a unique atmosphere to what could’ve been a simple documentary. It’s uncomfortable to be this close to Sagawa, even behind a screen, when he talks about his obsessions with the flesh, accompanied by his brother, who takes care of him. Sagawa is not a healthy man, he has not recovered, and in the film we can testify on that to an disturbing degree, being witness of his current sexual obsessions, his sharing of his desires to still consume the flesh of others, his recollection of old memories, his personal relationship and ever evolving relationship with his brother, even his exchanges with what seems to be a caretaker, but also sex worker.
Co-produced by the Harvard Sensory Etnographic Lab, Caniba is a film whose exploration on the dwellings of his subject allow for a deep meditation and internal conversation about his motives and about the society surrounding Sagawa. What does this portray of a man tells us about who we are? Can we look beyond our own disgust, and find answers about our own world from the images of this individual? Sagawa says, when talking about his desires: “being eaten is about becoming part of the other”. So where does this excess of desire come from? Now that cannibalism has become a somewhat revisited theme in contemporary cinema (Trouble Every Day, Raw), one could stop and start asking those questions. Caniba is fundamental viewing in its role of understanding, in its long, out of focus shots that serve as an artifact for reflection. If beyond his mental health, such is the hunger of a man that makes him consider consuming others in order to be whole, how much of this void is also part of us?
Directors: Verena Paravel, Lucien Castaing-Taylor
Producers: Valentina Novati, Verena Paravel, Lucien Castaing-Taylor
Cinematography: Verena Paravel, Lucien Castaing-Taylor
Editing: Verena Paravel, Lucien Castaing-Taylor