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True/False Conversations - Depicting Canibalism in 'Caniba'


This story is part of True/False Conversations, a series of in-depth interviews with the filmmakers of this year's True/False Film Fest.

Directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel wanted to tell the story of a cannibalistic man without the typical sensationalism surrounding cannibalism. One goal of their documentary "Caniba" is to have the audience intimately engage with someone they would typically write off as a monster. 


Issei Sagawa murdered and cannibalized Renée Hartevelt in France in 1981. Afterward, he spoke openly about his desire to eat young women.


Broughton: I noticed that the actual murder of Renée happened in 1981, so I was wondering why you and Verena chose to tell this story now.


Castaing- Taylor: When somebody, another filmmaker named Josh Oppenheimer, at a festival in Vienna started talking to us about him, we became interested since we were working in Japan anyway and wanted to meet him. Verena had forgotten about him and didn't even know that he was still alive. And he'd been working in a lot of sex-ploitation films in the years since and we were talking to Japanese filmmakers and we found a way to meet him. And he was at the end of his life. He's still alive but he's sick. He has diabetes and had a stroke.We decided it might be interesting to try to make a film about cannibalism. Anthropologists have written a lot about cannibalism and obviously we love films about vampires and novels about vampires. But very few people have actually ever tried to understand one human being's cannibalistic desire without being overly judgemental or censorious or without completely mythologizing it. So that was the challenge we set ourselves and were even done with him before, we sort of took the anti-sensationalists thing which is all the more disturbing because there's no obvious moral judgment on our part.


Broughton: I wonder what it was like working with the two brothers because something that stood out to me in the film was when his brother would laugh about Issei trying to kill him and hisbrother seemed to be constantly giggling about them fighting and things like that.


Castaing-Taylor: I think comedy and tragedy go hand in hand. Working with them, it was in a very small space. Their apartment is perhaps 30 feet by 20 feet and very small. It was very psychologically grueling. Every night we both had, especially Verena had, very vivid dreams about cannibals and she dreamt a number of times that she was eating her, which is obviously disturbing. So often that she actually that she began to feel that she understood his desire to eat someone. But still, they're incredibly psychotic, vivid dreams that really beg lots of questions given all that paranoia that hanging with him might induce. It wasn't particularly the most relaxing place to hang out.


Broughton: And what are some moments in the film that you hope the audience sticks with them after they leave the theater?


Castaing- Taylor: Not really moments, it's really the whole film. We live our lives as...we're deeply moralistic creatures. We're deeply judgmental of and scared of people who are so different from us. So, just to try and sort of momentarily hold in and abandon all the moral religions that make our lives comfortable and in particular to try to meditate on an act that seems so heinous that it's almost criminal even to think about it.