Is it acceptable to make a documentary film about a cannibal? What kind of story should it tell? Susanna Helke, a documentary filmmaker and a professor at Aalto University, writes about the film Caniba, a portrait of a cannibal.
The film Caniba by Lucian Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel takes the viewer into a bizarre world.
Issei Sagawa is a 60-year-old Japanese man who in his youth went one step too far. One day, his perverse craving to eat the flesh of the woman he desired became reality. Today, he is a paralytic old man and a famous oddity. Only his brother has remained by his side.
Castaing-Taylor and Paravel are filmmakers with an education in anthropology and they are founding members of the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard University. For them, the documentary art is a tool for examining reality and for trying to understand everything that is within the reach of our sensory capacities. The film forces the viewer to slowly stare at this man in extreme close-ups. As the camera only reveals the human skin, the answer to the question of where this macabre desire stems from remains unresolved and under the surface. Can it be explained by a genetic error, a mental disorder, or as a cultural disease embodied by an individual? Or, is it a strange shadow remaining from our evolutionary past?
The film brings to mind a dialogue from Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel Nausea, where a self-taught humanist declares the amiability of all humanity. The protagonist, Roquentin, has difficulties in relating to this premise. For him, mere existence causes a sense of overwhelming nausea. In Caniba, the mandate that art has often adopted – a humanism that embraces all humanity with love – is being tested.
Art is a ritual of accepting existence. Understanding, knowledge and imagination lay foundations for our ethical abilities, seizing both the possible and the impossible. Are the filmmakers crossing a line? An important questions is, can the illness of an individual become a metaphor for something more profound than the sensational urge to peek into the darkness of humanity?
Susanna Helke (Translation: Ulrika Sundelin)