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Is Eli Roth's Quest for the Real in 'The Green Inferno' Successful?

Joseph Laycock

Cannibal movies such as this question whether the protagonists are any better than those who are eating them.

The Green Inferno

Director: Eli Roth
Cast: Lorenza Izzo, Ariel Levy, Daryl Sabara, Kirby Bliss Blanton, Sky Ferreira, Magda Apanowicz, Nicolás Martinez
Rated: R
Studio: Universal
Year: 2014
US date: 2015-09-25 (General release)
UK date: 2015-09-25 (General release)

Is it possible to make a horror film about a tribe of cannibals that doesn't dehumanize indigenous people? Probably not, but Eli Roth claims his film The Green Inferno is actually a commentary about online slacktivism and the hypocrisy of stroking one's ego in the name of social justice. I was intrigued enough by the recent interview to see the film. Cannibalism films were once a niche genre of extreme horror. The title of Roth's film references Ruggio Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust (1980), which defined the field.

Like Deodato's film, Roth attempts a plot in which the victims "deserve" to be eaten by cannibals. Much like the less controversial zombie apocalypse genre, cannibal movies question whether the protagonists are any better than those eating them. If there is any moral message in Roth's gore-soaked fiasco, it is that our values are based on a world we actually know nothing about. Indeed, horror directors like Deodato and Roth seem driven by a perverse hunger to experience reality unfiltered by media.

Cannibal Holocaust was one of the first films to use the "found footage" trope. A group of anthropologists recover film reels from a previous expedition that was murdered by cannibals as their cameras continued running. The film within a film is shot in a grainy "cinéma vérité" style for added realism. Cannibal Holocaust was banned in several countries for its depictions of gore, gang rape, animal cruelty, and its racist portrayal of actual indigenous tribes. In one infamous scene, a large river turtle is actually killed and dismembered on camera.

Ruggero was arrested on obscenity charges amid allegations that Cannibal Holocaust was a "snuff" film depicting actual murder. The director was forced to reveal how he had simulated a woman being impaled on a pole, which appeared to emerge from her throat, without actually killing the actress. Although the film had been banned for other reasons, journalists assumed that rumors of "snuff" were true. As late as 1993, when British authorities confiscated copies of the film at a comic-book fair, the newspaper The Independent reported that a "snuff" video had been seized.

Like Roth, Ruggero claimed his film was commentary on the hypocrisy of media and was meant to be sympathetic to the tribes it depicted. He said the idea for the film came from watching the Italian media's coverage of the Red Brigade terrorist group: The media seemed more interested in obtaining footage of graphic violence than accurate reporting. In Cannibal Holocaust, the tribe only resorts to violence after the outsiders (who are seeking to stage more exciting footage for their documentary) maim, rape, and kill indigenous people. Viewers are meant to ask, "Who are the real savages?"

Roth recalls being both fascinated and horrified by the shocking realism of Cannibal Holocaust. But his homage appears to strengthen, rather than question, the dichotomy between civilized and savage. Roth describes a friendly working relationship with the Peruvian villagers who played extras, but his cannibals remain a pastiche of racist fantasies. While most of victims are eaten alive, Justine, the protagonist, is spared so that the tribe can perform female genital mutilation (FGM) on her. Another victim is subjected to "the ordeal of the ants".

The only thing these practices– -- assembled from different cultures around the world -- have in common is that they are offensive to Western sensibilities. FGM and trials involving insects are, in some cultures, coming of age ceremonies. Why would the tribe bestow initiation on some prisoners and eat others? There are few clues as to the culture or motivations of this tribe.

At times, the film seems like an apology for colonialism. Before leaving for Peru, Justine tells her father, who is a lawyer for the United Nations, that she wants to stop FGM. He answers: "There's laws, there's process, you can't just go invade a country because they're doing something you think is illegal or immoral. At least not anymore."

As monstrous as these cannibals are, Roth claims the real monsters are the "social justice warriors": "The whole idea of the kids saving the rainforest only to be eaten by the tribe they saved is a metaphor for how people are shamelessly consumed by their vanity and need for validation on social media." Alejandro, the charismatic leader of the activists, asks his friends if they have ever had "a fantasy" of saving an undiscovered Amazonian tribe. In Roth's critique, social justice warriors value their personal and online fantasies over any actual change.

Roth's cannibals are a force of non-negotiable reality that demolishes the power structures of social media. Alejandro explains that shaming people on the Internet is the only way to effect change. The activists take selfies and celebrate when their activities go viral on Twitter. They regard their phone cameras as an apotropaic that protects them from authority and danger.

But the panopticon is useless against the cannibals. In the most gruesome scene in the film, a tribal elder plucks out an activist's eyes and eats them. Devouring the eyes seems to symbolize that the logic of video and online shaming has no meaning in the real world that the cannibals inhabit.

By the end of the film, Alejandro is revealed as a sociopath who doesn't care about the survival of the indigenous people or his companions. While in captivity, he explains that his protest to save the rainforest from a petroleum company was actually funded by a rival corporation and that the indigenous people never had any hope of survival. He claims the protest will get their activist group lots of publicity online, which can be parlayed into political power. He explains that this is the way the world really works: "Do you think the US didn't allow 9/11 to happen? Or that there is such thing as the drug war?" To emphasize the point, Alejandro passes the time in his cage by masturbating.

The ending is ambiguous. Justine is a virgin and, according to the classic formula of horror movies, is the only one who survives. Back in the United States we see her telling a group of authorities that the tribe helped her after a plane crash killed all of her companions. She denies rumors that the tribe is cannibalistic. Her motivation for doing this is unclear.

Roth explains: "Does she want credit or does she want to save them? In the final scene, she makes a choice to protect the village." My initial interpretation was that Justine was back in a world filtered by media and feared no one would believe her if she said the indigenous tribe were actually savage monsters rather than primeval innocents. The film closes on a group of college protesters wearing T-shirts stenciled with Alejandro's face in the style of Che Guevara icons. The monster has become a leftist hero.

The word "monster" comes from the Latin "monere" meaning to warn. The warning Roth's monsters point to is that we live in a Baudrillardian simulacrum in which our heroes are really sociopaths and our aspirations for justice are actually disguised narcissism. It isn't that Roth doesn't care, it's that he is profoundly pessimistic about our ability to change things. He says of his critics, "This fear that somehow a movie would give them [petroleum companies] ammunition to destroy a tribe all sounds like misdirected anger and frustration that the corporations are the ones controlling the fates of these uncontacted tribes."

Roth's declared goal is to shock audiences out of a fantasy in which heroism can be experienced from a computer screen. The obsessive use of torture and gore is meant to create a sense, however fleeting, of an encounter with a real world that is visceral and dangerous. The irony is that this may amount to replacing one unhealthy fantasy with another.

Joseph P. Laycock is an assistant professor of religious studies at Texas State University. His most recent book is Dangerous Games: What the Moral Panic over Role-Playing Games Says About Play, Religion, and Imagined Worlds.

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