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America Undercover: Cannibal: The Real Hannibal Lecters


The most important questions Cannibal never addresses are what she (and presumably we) find so compelling about modern cannibal stories, and how our obsession over these stories is directly tied to contemporary culture.

America Undercover

Airtime: First aired 9 February 2003, check listings for
Display Artist: Simon Berthon, Katherine English, Daniel Korn
Subtitle: Cannibal: the Real Hannibal Lecters
Network: First aired 9 February 2003, check listings for
Creator: Daniel Korn

Katherine English, producer and director of Cannibal: The Real Hannibal Lecters, is right about one thing: the figure of the cannibal, real or imaginary, has captivated Western culture for centuries. At the height of the Age of Discovery, during the 16th century, South Seas adventurers were particularly fascinated. Their reports were filled with detailed accounts of meetings with cannibal tribes, who came to stand for everything opposite to the West and in need of containment. Around the same time, in 1595, philosopher Michel de Montaigne famously inverted these hierarchies in "Des Cannibales," and accused the "civilized" West of being in fact far more barbarous than these "primitive" peoples.

The cannibal has also loomed large in popular entertainment. Canonical American authors like Herman Melville and Edgar Allan Poe crafted stories in which cannibals were ciphers for the barely suppressed drives of "human nature," and at the same time reflected and reified the racist schemas of their times. And the traveling circuses and freak shows that were a primary form of entertainment in 18th and 19th century Europe and U.S. were sure to display at least one "cannibal."

The figure and history of the cannibal continue to have direct social and political implications. Today, Western fascinations with modern day cannibals need to be rethought within the context of advanced consumer culture. Cannibalism and/as consumption, as defining a specific type of serial killing and its connection to capitalist consumerism change the ways that cannibalism "means" things to and for modern society. And this is precisely the point that English does not introduce, let alone come to grips with, in Cannibal.

The most important questions Cannibal never addresses are what she (and presumably we) find so compelling about modern cannibal stories, and how our obsession over these stories is directly tied to contemporary culture. Part of this might have been addressed by the subtitle to the documentary, "The Real Hannibal Lecters." An analysis might have been offered for the immense popularity of this fictional character and his connections to real cannibal serial killers. Hannibal Lecter, however, is never mentioned in the documentary -- he appears only in the title.

Instead, English offers a cursory consideration of the history of cannibalism. She indexes Age of Discovery narratives, Christian metaphorizing of cannibalism in the transubstantiation of the body and blood of Christ, and the real world cannibalism of the South American soccer team stranded in the Andes Mountains in the 1980s. But these are presented merely as highlights/soundbites in cannibal history.

The primary assertion, that cannibalism is the "ultimate taboo" in Western culture, remains unexplored. Rather, the film makes this observation as a statement of fact, then moves on to the lurid, salacious details of recent cannibal crimes, details that are the focus of Cannibal. So while it purports to offer some historical contextualization of cannibal serial killers today, Cannibal doesn't follow through, and instead remains steadfastly superficial in its tabloid tv treatment of the subject.

Cannibal tells the stories of four notorious cannibal serial killers, attempting to discover "why they did it." Coming under English's scrutiny are Andrei Chikatilo, Arthur Shawcross, Issei Segawa, and, of course, Jeffrey Dahmer. The obvious difficulty English faces in revealing their motives is that two of her subjects are dead -- Dahmer was killed in prison in 1994, and Chikatilo was executed by the Soviets in Rostov, Ukraine in 1992. So, not surprisingly, the segments on these two are filled almost entirely with excerpts from television news coverage.

Much like these images, Cannibal displays sensationalist tendencies in its use of graphic crime scene photos and detailed reports of each criminal's killings and cannibalizations. English points out that the sexual organs were often the primary (and sometimes only) body parts to be consumed by the killers. Strangely, though, she doesn't ascribe much significance to this detail. The film merely observes it, repeatedly, without any attempt to interpret its social, sexual or even political dimensions. What is particularly lacking is how English might have considered how this fact could recontextualize cannibalism today as a specific type of sex crime.

Of its several dead ends, the major disappointment of Cannibal is how English fails to pick up on the incipient critique, embedded within the film, of advanced consumerism as an explanatory frame. Cannibal opens with the story of Andrei Chikatilo, and locates his acts within the history of the Soviet Union. Over the course of the 20th century, the USSR experienced regular famine, which drove the citizenry to desperate measures and often made cannibalism a necessity of life. As a child, Chikatilo survived a protracted famine in the Ukraine, and witnessed his brother's death and cannibalization.

In this context, Chikatilo's acts become somewhat understandable, and cannibalism becomes an unfortunate necessity due to the depredations of the Soviet Union. Or so English would have us believe, as her documentary implicitly indicts Soviet Communism's failure to provide for its citizenry. In part, it does this by standing Andrei Chikatilo in contrast to the idiosyncratic and "senseless" cannibalism of the West, here represented by criminals from the advanced techno states of the U.S. and Japan.

Necessity, according to English, clearly doesn't inform the crimes of Dahmer or Shawcross, and their cannibalism seems more a result of a capitalist culture of ease, availability and obsessive consumerism. "Consume often and consume everything" is the ideological injunction in the U.S., to which Dahmer's and Shawcross's cannibalism becomes a terrible and logical extension.

This connection of consumerism and cannibalism is apotheosized in the crime of Issei Segawa, the Japanese student in Paris who became obsessed with a young Dutch woman, whom he killed and spent several days devouring. Due to some complexities of international extradition laws, and, as the film accuses, the laxity of Japanese legislation concerning the incarceration of the mentally ill, Segawa is today living free in Tokyo, where he has become something of a celebrity. Cannibal tells us how Segawa is a highly sought after public speaker (for what or who is never made clear), in addition to a restaurant critic and the star of many pornographic, orally fixated, fetish films.

Issei Segawa's transformation from consumer of human flesh to hip, hot consumer product draws direct connections between modern cannibalism and the cannibal "nature" of advanced consumerism. It's unfortunate that Katherine English ignores or doesn't see this connection, and instead offers in Cannibal the same old sensationalism. But then again, isn't tabloid journalism a kind of mass-produced consumer junk food?

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