Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Verena Paravel discuss their latest film, Caniba (2017), an intimate portrait of infamous Japanese cannibal and subsequent media personality, Issei Sagawa, and his brother, Jun. The film had its North American premiere at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, where we talked to the collaborators about the aesthetic and dialogue surrounding their latest film.
The Seventh Art: Because of the unique way of shooting and the translation that would happen after each shoot, did you discover a lot of the film in the editing stage?
Lucien Castaing-Taylor: I disagree with what [Verena] said last night, or at least the way you said it. I think you said we didn’t want to know what was said.
Verena Paravel: No, sometimes, not all the time. Sometimes we didn’t want to know.
C-T: I disagree, I don’t think we didn’t want to know what was happening, it’s just… what is a “happening”? There are lots of different definitions of a happening or an event. What does it mean for something to happen or to go on? Most of the things that are going on… we’re right now talking, using words, using discourse in a language that we all understand, but we’re all having different thoughts. You’re looking at my face, we’ve never met before, lots of different thoughts are going on that don’t come into this linguistic happening. So I don’t think we’re utterly uninterested at all in what was happening. On the contrary, we’re more interested in forms of happenings, a kind of happening, or a kind of interaction and encounter that was not mediated by language. First, because we don’t like talking heads as a rule. Secondly, because [Issei Sagawa] is really laconic and speaks in these haiku fragments, which is really interested. At times, by not knowing what he was saying and asking our translator not to translate, we had a different type of intimacy and engagement with their beings. It also opened up our imaginations in a way that doesn’t if all you’re doing is attending to what’s being said. That was always the case, but most of the time within a couple minutes they were whispering into our ears what they were saying. The main character, the main brother [Jun], the way he speaks is not always very conventional in Japanese. So often we did know what they were saying in the space of a few minutes, also we asked to not know until later, but later was just a half-hour or hour later. Every evening we downloaded the footage and sometimes we did that by ourselves so we couldn’t translate anymore, and sometimes we did it with our Nao [Nakazawa], our collaborator. Also, we had an hour and a half drive each way, every day, and every day we were talking about that days conversations, that day’s encounter, that day’s events, that day’s happenings. So I think we were constantly thinking about what was going on, what was happening, the whole time. Then, when we had it initially dubbed, the footage, then later subtitled, then we understood better what the people were saying. It became really limiting, because often we loved an image that we were filming where you could see someone’s mouth move, then we realized, “Shit! Why do we have their mouth in the frame, because we don’t like what they’re saying.” We could keep a different kind of evocation of that personal relationship between the two brothers present, why did we have to film their mouth because it happens to be interesting, but we didn’t know that. It’s more complicated, it’s a real long process going back and forth.
P: I agree, but I don’t… it’s just a way of saying it.
C-T: I know, I just hate the… I know you think the same thing.
It’s like the difference between disinterested vs. uninterested, not married to what’s being said, but not that you are uninterested.
C-T: Yeah, what I was saying was that even with all that work during the filming and every night, when we later had it dubbed and then subtitled, a lot of the editing was frustrating because there were amazing images that we wanted to use.
P: Oh yeah!
C-T: But even though the film is super close-up, sometimes it wasn’t close-up enough, because we had the mouth in it. It was like, “Oh my god, the image is incredible, but we can’t use it…” If only he wasn’t talking or if we had framed it tighter, or shot the other way.
Did you have the idea of how you would frame most of the shots before or did it come when you saw the space? Unlike your other films, which are evocative of the milieu or the surroundings, this is one where you don’t have the space creeping in to how he is represented. Was that something you knew you would do before or while shooting?
C-T: Both or neither. I disagree. I think it’s unlike Foreign Parts (2010) and Sweetgrass (2009), but I do paradoxically think it’s like Leviathan (2012). With Leviathan, despite its wide angles, it’s shot at night, it’s pretty topsy-turvy (you don’t have your bearings), decontextualizes the space such that the viewer’s deprived of his space-time bearings, and here rather than a wide angle, you have this extreme close-up that also abstracts the space. The close-up, then, becomes from the space-time coordinates and you start gazing dialogically with this face that becomes flesh, that becomes image, that becomes screen without a typical, objectifying medium shot or long shot or documentary that shows the surrounding and puts the viewer at a distance from them. Tu n’ecoutes pas?
P: Non. How do you know? It’s so obvious? So, I have nothing to add, but I disagree.
When you were shooting at low angles was that a necessity of the space or was that another component of how you wanted to abstract this portrait?
P: I think it goes with what you just said before.
C-T: No, I think it’s because I was so fat and I was paralyzed, I was sitting in a wheelchair and I was too fat to get out of it, so I was always looking up. [The camera] was on my lap. What your excuse was, I don’t know.
P: [Laughs] We were fighting to sit on the wheelchair.
C-T: It was squeaky, remember?
P: Yeah, but that was the most comfortable place to be, because it was – I don’t know if you remember, but I was sitting on the little stool, completely crushed and next to the smelly trash. I don’t know about the low angle.
C-T: In part it was laziness, because down here is more comfortable. It’s not always at a low angle. The low angles on the face you don’t always notice, but the jaw looms large. Always given the metaphor of the jaw and eating, however determined that is, then you feel the low angle on that. There is, I guess, a general sense of low angle, but it wasn’t forethought.
P: We were all basically sitting like that, in a very tiny, tiny space for hours. A very slow, slow, slow pace. I don’t think it’s more interesting than just resting and being calm. Sometimes we would go next to him, sometimes he was falling off his chair, so I would stand next to him and try to prevent him from falling…
C-T: While filming…
P: With my body, then filming. There’s also this thing that we never talk about, but when we understood pretty good, pretty early on that the brother, who at the beginning was not even supposed to be part of the film, was this mysterious, opaque person. He would step into the conversation, but very slowly. He was in the landscape. We started to naturally, organically include him in the frame and then a lot of our shots had one of us film Sagawa-san and then have the brother in the background.
Like Bergman in Persona (1966)…
P: Yeah, so quite early on we started to play with the brother in the background and the two of them, the way they were interacting. About the low angle, I don’t think we had something preconceived, “If we shoot at this angle it would look like this or that.” I don’t think we had anything in mind.
It becomes powerful at the end, maybe because of what he’s talking about, but the last shot where he’s looking up at something the audience can’t see because of the framing. He keeps saying, “I’ts a miracle.”
P: You feel like he’s in heaven.
C-T: He’s listening to crows in the sky and the bells. It seems like death.
P: I know where his heaven is…
C-T: You’ve been there?
P: I’ve been there, many times.
C-T: How was it?
C-T: Worth going back to?
There was a question at last night’s screening that I found interesting, though it wasn’t maybe phrased well. The relationship both brothers have with self-representation, in one case with Issei’s participation with the media for most of his life, but with Jun, you don’t know until you see the videos he’s recorded of himself. Whatever pleasure or sexual pleasure that he received when he watched it alone vs. what it means when he shows it to another person. It also contributes to collage of media formats used in the film. Did you get the home movies early in the process or after?
C-T: I don’t think anything ever becomes clear for us. Initially, we thought we might… all of these talk shows that Sagawa-san is on, they weren’t all recorded. A lot of stuff about him has been recorded, even back in 1981, the 1980s, even three years ago Vice did something on him. We thought we would, for the first time, make a piece that engaged with archives, engaged with this kind of media, the historiography of him and “the incident” (as he calls it). From the beginning we were thinking about it and ended up not doing it, but they gave us the 8mm footage that we scanned while we were with them. We didn’t look at it until later and we thought it was incredible. We didn’t know how or if we’d use it. Before we made this film, we made an art piece, a two-channel installation. One channel is just the 8mm, a lot of it, like forty minutes of it. The other channel is a piece of video that we shot. I forget when in the course of editing we decided we would use it. Initially, we started editing without thinking about the 8mm. Do you remember?
P: I don’t remember, I just remember that for any other film we have no idea before we edit and while we edit… The porn came very late in the process. It was very complicated for us. We were thinking of the archive and we were fascinated by [the 8mm], it’s super beautiful, super fascinating. Because you never know who is the filmmaker, who was holding the camera, and who are you to film your kids? There are so many things that they film, this person films. It’s fascinating not knowing who was behind the camera, what they were focusing on. We didn’t know until the very end, we didn’t even know that [his nurse] at the end would be in the film. It’s really building and then looking at the footage, listening, trying to think, having a dialogue. I don’t think we had anything in mind… We had anything and everything, we could play with everything, the media, borrow from Vice, and slowly we wanted to get away from the typical representation. We didn’t go for a more essay-like film.
Even the manga is interesting because there’s a kind of editing that’s happening within the shot when it’s being flipped through. As a viewer, you see the images of the manga, but you as filmmakers are not controlling the order they come in. Is it his brother that is flipping through? He’s choosing how the story is told.
P: He’s discovering it. It’s a super interesting moment where you’re not controlling anything, we’re not controlling the pace, and it’s a moment where you want to see, but you see part and you’re really at the mercy…
As far as the various media used, there’s also the Stranglers’ song [“La folie”], which I guess you had to choose instead of the Rolling Stones’ song [“Too Much Blood”], but it also initiates the karaoke aesthetic. I was interested in how you came to that conclusion?
P: What did you think of the karaoke?
As a white, Anglo-Saxon from Canada, karaoke is imagery that gets used to represent Japanese culture regularly. I noticed Nao say during the Q&A how sensitive he was to what this film meant for Japan as a whole. The karaoke sequence had a meta-level for me about how this story can’t just be about a person, it will always pull in a larger culture in its representation, which is problematized by his opportunities to be in the media in Japan. Also, it’s provocative for a film that’s so close to his face the entire time to switch to the black screen and pink text of the karaoke. Was it always in the cut or did it come later?
P: Very late, almost last minute.
C-T: I’m not sure we can answer that question. If you’re making us answer it, we might say things like, after a year or two working at an answer, we don’t understand yet why Jun pushed himself on us. We listened to the Stones song and we decided not to use it. The Stranglers’ “La folie” was interesting for a number of reasons: One, it was an English punk band speaking in French (the French is really bad), so we subtitled in bad English to do justice to the bad French. So it’s to deal with trans-cultural, linguistic, miscommunication. In terms of the actual content of what was said, we kept the song up very long and the first stanza is about the desire to achieve oneness with your lover through eating them, which obviously dovetails with the film very well, which also dovetails with the theme of desire to achieve redemption or release or therapeutic value from confession. And the futility of that act, how often we need to confess or to share. A person on the street this morning in trauma and in order to carry on, and how that usually falls on deaf ears, and had she confessed, shared, broken down in tears, they would walk away. But because it happened upon you [Verena], she didn’t have deaf ears and that transformed her day. It’s about how even the good God turns a deaf ear toward needing to confess. It’s about intercourse in all its forms, the need to have dialogue between the self and the other as part of what makes us human. It’s also what’s going on with these two brothers and the act of cannibalism and so on. The karaoke also, we thought, indexed the cross-cultural parodying, satirizing, borrowing, blending, making the index itself – in this case the Stranglers – is popular culture harvesting an event like this and doing something else with it; register our outsiderness, as well, and some other things that I’m blanking on.
As you say, you have this hegemonic, sober discourse of the close-ups and it irritates all of the conventional pop-doc kind of gibberish about medium-shots and it’s really uncomfortable to be that close to someone. It doesn’t let the spectator off the hook, the only thing they can do is to blame the cinematographer or filmmaker as a result, it’s not the subject. The moment you frame someone at a distance you put them at a remove, so you can stay comfortable in your little seat at the AGO. The discourse of sobriety in documentary, the ethical puritanism, which I also thought the first question [at the screening] indexed about documentary that’s so different than fiction and the film Raw. That’s way more explicit than anything in this, yet this is seen to be infinitely more difficult to watch, because it’s attached to the real in some way. We thought, why is non-fiction have this set of conventions that doesn’t allow it to be ludic, doesn’t allow it to be playful, fantasy and play and artistic creativity and aesthetics are hard and fast with real life or reality, the representation of the real. So why not do something that is kitsch and karaoke in this case, why shouldn’t that allow it to lead into or tune into something that is nominally super-real. In the same way that with sound in Leviathan we really pushed it to its max in the way that only a fiction sound designer would do, which irked a lot of James Benning’s kind of purist avant-garde types.
P: For me, when the film is finished, it needs to be a mysterious object to us first. Adding the karaoke was for all those reasons, but also reasons we will understand maybe later, to add to the complexity of the object itself. We’ll see.
What was the cross-over with Somniloquies (2017)? Some of the things you were saying about fantasies seemed similar, while both film seem to be about orators. Were they shot at the same time?
P: Edited at the same time. I never thought of that, that’s a good question.
C-T: Filmmakers really are their own worst interpreters. I bet there are a lot of interesting affinities and differences that maybe we will tease out in a decade or six months or something.
There’s one shot that I really liked where it appears that Issei is falling asleep and there’s a cut – I think it goes to the porn – that triggers a sense of a dream or fantasy.
P: Yes, that’s right. There’s also somebody falling asleep in every one of our films, we noticed that the other day.
C-T: I fall asleep every time we try to watch one of our films. I think they both deal with desire and fantasy, a kind of nocturnal, dark sensibility.
C-T: They both engage with the unconscious, things that are usually kept at bay in non-fiction.
P: It’s hard to capture that.
C-T: They are both like our earlier work, very verbal, very linguistic films, especially Somniloquies.
P: I think we’re really interested in this liminal stage in-between the fluctuation from conscious to unconscious, and actually the falling asleep, where you’re losing control. It’s so hard to capture that in film.
C-T: I don’t think it’s hard at all, I think it’s very easy. Documentary does a really bad job at it. You’re told to “tell the story,” “Where’s the story?” “Where are the characters?” All that garbage, it kills it, but fiction people do it all the time.
P: [Laughs] In non-fiction film it’s hard to capture and this is why we’re trying.
C-T: I don’t think it’s hard in non-fiction. If we had a camera on all of our three person, we would be able to tell what we’re thinking or not thinking at one point. When she starts nagging [laughs], you can tell immediately, likewise. You don’t need to be a genius to film it, you just need to be present.
P: But I have a special condition, a cognitive problem that’s different.
C-T: Just to be nasty about the first question we had yesterday [at the Q&A, about the filmmakers being complicit in glamourizing the fetishes of the men documented], I think we were unduly polite. It indexes North American moral puritanism that is a symptom of an extreme cowardice and it’s related to Trumpist fascism, paradoxically. It’s also related to the need to give any interlocutor ten million trigger warnings and create safe spaces where no human difference will remain. A safe space where the nature of humanity, which is a nature of constant dialogue and contesting of forms of self-loathing and otherness (everyone has others within ourselves, as well as outside ourselves, and manifestations of themselves in others, and vice versa) – that gets sewed up and simplified. Obviously there are relationships of power in life, as there are in filmmaking (fiction and non-fiction). In certain regards, obviously the filmmaker is a position of structural superiority over their subjects, but that’s not as asymmetrical, not nearly as simple as linear. The filmmaker wants something, but he or she does not know what they want, often we don’t know what we want, but the subjects want things, too. People have reciprocal desires and want reciprocal stories. The subjects are constantly using and abusing filmmakers for their own purposes, including their own desires and forms of self-representation, just as we are. It’s this dance, but it’s a kind of nocturnal dance, you don’t quite understand each other’s respective interests, which you negotiate it as we all do in real life all the time. But the notion that somehow, there’s something pornographic… Whoop-de-doo. Desire and sexuality, if anything, is the cornerstone of human existence. The notion that we would film a scene like that where we’re not implicated in it, imagines this dystopian world which would be divested of desire, a morally pure universe where there are no stakes of ethical engagement whatsoever. That’s a complete fiction. It’s related to the awful moralism of our times that risks nothing and is terrified of all kinds of difference.