With Caniba, the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Laboratory duo Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor turn their typically assured lens on Issei Sagawa, a Japanese man who was deported from Paris in 1981 for murdering and cannibalizing a Dutch student. In what amounts to a catalogue of horrific deviancy, Caniba documents, in explicit detail, Sagawa’s past attempts to capitalize on his infamy (using gruesome manga illustrations of his crimes and forays into pornography, among other exploits), as well as his fraught relationship with his brother and caretaker.
Paravel and Castaing-Taylor’s approach certainly fulfills the “sensory ethnography” requirement of the film (it is, indeed, a brand of formalism that is attentive to the visceral impact of its images). But in its genuinely difficult, provocative manner, Caniba also embodies the limits of such an approach. The filmmakers’ interest in Sagawa as an individual feels limited to larger (read: ethnographic) implications, despite the inherent ethical queasiness of providing someone like Sagawa another opportunity to make himself known. Ultimately, what registers is senseless, morbid fascination. When it comes to documentary filmmaking, there can be a certain integrity to staring horror squarely in the eye; in this case, though, the directors would have done better to just look away.
Published as part of Venice International Film Festival 2017.