Welcome to Top of the Docs, Flip Screen’s hub for all things documentary. This weekly column takes a look at the crème de la crème of non-fiction media, with each month tending to focus on a particular theme. This month’s theme is stranger than fiction.
To kick off our May coverage, we have an extraordinary look into one of the most terrifying true-life stories ever put to film in Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s Caniba. The film focuses on the story of Issei Sagawa. When Sagawa was 32 years old in Paris studying at the Sorbonne, he was arrested when caught attempting to dispose of two bloody suitcases. It was later discovered that Sagawa had killed his classmate, Renée Hartevelt, and had begun eating her. Sagawa was declared legally insane and was forced to return to Japan. However, he was released after two years of pre-trial detention due to the aforementioned declaration. Since then, Sagawa has made a living off of the crime he committed, writing books and manga comics detailing what happened.
What makes Paravel and Castaing-Taylor’s film stand out amongst other similar documentaries is the way in which the film seems to be rooted in an exploration of Sagawa himself rather than his story. The film is shot almost entirely in close-up and is told through a monologue delivered by Sagawa himself. There is no explanatory text; even when Sagawa runs out of things to say, the film does not cut, which leads to moments of deep discomfort. The film takes a tale that seems stranger than fiction and rips away any sort of narrative importance, instead focusing on the surrealness of it all and the very real horror of the act committed.
The film received a fair amount of backlash. It was seen that Caniba was giving a platform to a killer, and that it was morally reprehensible to treat people who have committed terrible acts as inherently interesting. However, the film does not try to justify Sagawa’s act, if anything it is a demystification of Sagawa.
Many documentaries one would consider as ‘stranger than fiction’ find themselves compelled by a horrible act, and so follow the narrative cinematically, with protagonists and antagonists, twists and turns, and finally the grisly conclusion. The antagonist in this case is often depicted with an air of enigma, usually leaving us wondering “how could they do this?” Caniba lacks this compulsion to make the horrific crime cinematic. The continued mythification of Sagawa is not the end goal here, instead the film takes away any mystery surrounding him and instead depicts him exactly as he is.
Over the course of a very uncomfortable and sometimes tiresome 90 minutes, we learn that Sagawa is barely lucid. He rambles on and on, sometimes about the crime, sometimes about random topics like Disney. Paravel and Castaing-Taylor twist the genre of stranger than fiction on its head, removing all elements relating to fiction and allowing their would-be antagonist to slowly strip away anything enigmatic about himself. Caniba leaves us with the portrait of a man who, above all else, is desperate to deliver his lines in the conventional documentary that they never set out to make.