The world that birthed Caniba made empathy difficult but disturbingly possible
In struggling to find the right words to form the thesis and body of this review, I engaged in an exercise of self-conversation — which I am oft to do when left nearly speechless. What was the (irrelevant but helpful) intent of Caniba? Do we identify with the subject(s) or be greatly offended? Can both feelings occur at once? Was this exploitation of some sort? All I could figure out for myself was that I was left aghast at the film, determined to fit in on my favorites of 2018 list (and in a high spot) but hurting to find a proper defense.
Then, I looked up Scout Tafoya’s thoughts on the movie for RogerEbert.com:
I don’t know that what we need right now is to sympathize with monsters. Maybe in a decade I’ll be ready to treat “Caniba” fairly. Right now, all I can think about is that Renée Hartevelt won’t get a movie.
Renee being the silent (and forgotten) victim of the cannibalistic “crime of passion” by Caniba’s central figure Issei Sagawa, who was declared insane and sent to Japan for a remaining life of cashing in on his notoriety (ala O.J. Simpson but far worse). Taking the film on — a documentary/dramatic narrative hybrid told with brilliantly limited but complex photography — by the information it presents, I had no real thoughts on Rene after viewing, as none were given other than she was a “white woman”. It’s hard here to focus on the deceased when all we have to go on are extreme close-ups of Issei’s fragile eyes and frail body. For minutes on end. With hardly a sound to be heard. And her omission/his portrait, disgusting as they may be, is exactly the point.
Rarely will you see media of the time or setting; There’s no Trump, no 24/7 news broadcasts, no national tragedies discussed — just this man and his horrific deed from decades prior. It’s an almost purgatory-ish void we find him living in, one filled with shame but probably not guilt. He doesn’t seem to be “sorry”, but does wear the weight of his actions in his fallen face, like a dog positioning the tail between its legs. Caniba is a story for all time and all regions, not just for its restricting of the outside world but for what it forces the audience to imagine of the world Issei lived/lives in, both the internal and external kind.
I can’t say I pity this man or even strongly relate to him, but I think I do feel some kind of general/genuine emotion for his final days of familial and personal pain, forced by himself and others to relive and recount the worst part of him, over and over. Still, he’s getting off light. I can’t help but think of the late 80s/early 90s neo-nazi documentary Blood in the Face, and just how truly disturbed the filmmakers were by the group they were documenting. In Caniba, there is no doubt a good amount of disgust and sickening fright brews to the forefront for the crew with each revelation made, but it’s tempered with a fascination throughout, one that I suspect has to do with how we all choose to live, what we choose to live with, and just under what circumstance will our inevitable conclusion take place under.
We watch and listen, past long pauses, Issei and his caretaker brother discuss details of “the incident” in sometimes vague, sometimes ultra-descriptive words and phrases which are sometimes poetic, sometimes ordinary. The film is constructed in a way that never determines if Issei and his brother are fully aware of the cameramen or their own participation in the footage being captured. Like the minds of old men, they drift in and out of reality and time and space often, on purpose and by convenient happenstance. I’m uncertain as to the voodoo employed by the filmmakers to make this happen, but everytime Issei looks at the camera, it feels as though he’s peering through it instead.
Caniba is a difficult watch for sure, one that I may never attempt again. But this is not in an A Serbian Film way — where that was juvenile in meaning, this is rich with depth. Instead, it’s in an emotionally exhausted way. I frequently thought of my sibling and parental relationships, everything that has led me to now and what would’ve/could’ve happened if some things went down differently. Issei is no Hitler, but his depiction in this tale did get me on a nature vs nurture kick. By the available accounts through home movies, his childhood was normal and healthy. By the manga he would eventually write and draw, he’s an extremely f***ed up individual. By the manner in which his new female helper assists him at the end — through male gaze and all — he’s one fortunate old man. At least he recognizes his being undeserving, but the world doesn’t so much.
Our better angels win out over the natural instincts to shun or revenge in some way, it seems. That is what makes us human, for better or worse. Do we prefer the primal over the feeling and thinking, now more than ever? Is that what we want? If so, we’d have something in common with cannibals.
RATING: 5 / 5
Caniba screens in New Orleans at Zeitgeist starting October 26th.