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In Caniba, film-makers explore the mind of a cannibal and it's not pretty

In June 13, 1981, Issei Sagawa, 32, was arrested after he was seen dumping two suspicious suitcases in the Seine. A student of comparative literature at Sorbonne, the Japanese man two days earlier had killed his Dutch classmate, raped her corpse, stored her body in his fridge and ate morsels after morsels of her flesh to stimulate his sexual desire. Only when the smell became unbearable did he pack what remained in the suitcases and threw them into the river. The French court declared Sagawa legally insane and released him. He returned to Japan, wrote a comic book about his world-famous case, became a food critic (no kidding), and starred in pornographic films. Today Sagawa, old and paralytic, still lives in a suburb of Tokyo.

Scenes from Caniba. photos courtesy of TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

In Caniba, showing this week at Toronto International Film Festival, the documentary filmmakers Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor captures Sagawa on the camera, almost in extreme close-up throughout 90 minutes, a work of powerful, disturbing intensity that blurs the line between film and video art, between confession and reminiscence, and between representation and porn.

Paravel and Castaing-Taylor were in Japan to work on a project about Fukushima when a Japanese scholar told them about the "pink film", or soft-core pornography, that starred Sagawa in the lead. As a child in Paris, Paravel remembered the case. "He was like a figure of my childhood," the filmmaker said after the screening in Toronto, and so instead of Fukushima they set out to make the film about the infamous cannibal.

What sets Caniba apart from other films about cannibalism is that the filmmakers are less interested in the act of flesh-eating or the sensational perversity of it. Paravel and Castaing-Taylor said they wanted to "collaborate with Sagawa" rather than impose themselves upon him and his story: the result is a patient, disquieting study of the man's cannibalistic desire and the deep, perhaps unfathomable impulse that connects sexual urge with flesh eating -- the total consumption of another person whom you feel strongly attracted to. In return, Sagawa also expresses his wish to be eaten to death by another cannibal.

There's more twist to the film. In Caniba, we see only two men, almost always in claustrophobic close-up shot where we only see sections of their faces and never the whole thing. Issei Sagawa has a brother, Jun Sagawa, who appears to be taking care of his notorious sibling. Midway through, Jun reveals the secret of his own violent fetish to the filmmakers and the film about cannibalism turns out to be a film about a bizarre sibling rivalry: who's more shocking, more perverse. Before the screening, Paravel warned the viewers that they should close their eyes at certain points in the film -- and those points aren't even about cannibalism.

Paravel and Castaing-Taylor are the leading figures in the Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL), founded at Harvard University, a well-respected experimental laboratory whose approach to documentary film-making -- or visual art making -- is about finding total experience and audience immersion, to, in its own words, "explore the aesthetics and ontology of the natural and unnatural world". Usually without narration, voice over, and with little context to the situation being portrayed, the films from SEL put you in the environment and let things happen -- the best-known film from the lab, also directed by Paravel and Castaing-Taylor, is Leviathan, a monumental example of life experience as captured by digital cameras mounted at various places on a fishing boat as it ventures out at sea.

The highly stylised visual of Caniba allows it to watch its subject, Issei Sagawa, a man associated with monstrosity and immoral perversion, so closely, so intimately, so frighteningly, and yet because of this surreal proximity, there's no distance between us and him -- and without distance, there's no judgement. Sagawa was declared insane. He's now ill, and his speech is slow and erratic, but clearly his mind is still working, and the memory of his horrid crime hasn't faded from his brain. One of the hardest films to watch this year, Caniba is also an intense and strangely engaging experience where art, life, horror and film intersect and move as one.

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