Saturday, November 3, 2007

BEEM, 1st place: Cannibal Holocaust

[Best Editing in an Exploitation Movie Award]

"For the sake of authenticity some sequences have been retained in their entirety."

In 1966, Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi released their follow up to '62's trend-starting Mondo Cane, Africa Addio. Africa Addio unflinchingly documents the end of colonialism in Africa with imagery both disturbing and profound. The filmmakers travel both with poachers and game wardens as the African animal reserves lose their "white-mandated" protection, and the graphic slaughter and corpses of (yes, literally) hundreds of animals are depicted on screen. Even more shocking, the film provides the only documentation of the slaughter of 5 - 20,000 Arabs during the '64 Zanzibar Revolution with footage shot from a circling helicopter. Most controversial upon the film's release, however, were several scenes of human executions, and, in particular, a scene in which a white soldier with a handgun executes a black at point blank range in a well framed close up. The filmmakers were accused of complicity, of staging this execution in order to get a "good shot" - they claim it just happened in front of them; due to the language barrier, they were totally confused and had no idea the execution was about to occur. A final controversy: the filmmakers were also accused of racism, of depicting blacks as barbaric animals unfit to govern themselves. This accusation has been widely discredited as an artifact of the bastardized versions of the film which showed in many countries. The original, intended edit is quite even-handed in its assignment of blame.

Flash forward to 1980: Ruggero Deodato releases Cannibal Holocaust, a fictional homage to / critique of Africa Addio, in particular, and exploitation ("shock") filmmaking in general. In the first half of the film, we follow an anthropologist's journey into the cannibal territory of the deepest Amazon on a search for a missing film crew. The crew is dead, but he manages to recover their footage. In the second half we see the story of the film crew revealed in their unedited footage, and the reactions of the anthropologist and the documentary's producers as they watch it. The film crew themselves are clearly modeled on (public perception of) Jacopetti and Prosperi. Before viewing the Amazon footage, the producers show the anthropologist some footage of executions from the film crew's earlier African movie, scenes clearly modeled after those in Africa Addio. When the anthropologist emits a grunt of shock, the producer says:

"Pretty powerful stuff, huh? Well, just to give you an idea how Alan and the others worked, everything you just saw was a put on. That was no enemy army approach, Alan paid those soldiers to do a bit of acting for him."

But what exactly is being criticized here ~ Jacopetti and Prosperi themselves, or some hypothetical demon created by public perception? And where does Cannibal Holocaust itself fit in? The film features numerous scenes of animal murder and mutilation - and unlike those in Africa Addio, there is no question that these acts were performed solely for the benefit of the camera. Conversely, the footage of African executions in Cannibal Holocaust is purportedly real, captured in Nigeria or East Africa. Is there a second issue here? Do we demean the memory of those who were executed even more by trivializing the circumstances of their death when we claim it is a mere "put on"? Did those who accused Jacopetti and Prosperi of complicity in the executions they captured on film efface and pervert - exploit - the memory of those who died even more than the filmmakers themselves? But if that's the case, then isn't Cannibal Holocaust, again, the most guilty party?

Ironically, we find a criticism of the exploitation of humans for the purpose of filmmaking in a film that itself commits that crime (possibly), and furthermore (definitely) exploits animals for the same purpose. Cannibal Holocaust is truly postmodern, then, in its self-referential criticism. The film accuses itself and finds itself guilty. Consider this snippet of dialogue between the anthropologist and the producer after they have watched a scene in which the documentary crew terrorizes a small village, killing a pig, in their quest for powerful footage:

"Oooo, I'm drained. You must admit, it's exceptional footage. I - I didn't expect such impact, such authenticity!"
"I don't know. I don't think exceptional is the right word."
"You don't?"
"No. I mean, what's exceptional about a primitive tribe, like the Yacumo, being ... terrorized, and forced into doing something they don't - they don't normally do."
"Come on now, professor! Let's be realistic, who knows anything about the Yacumo? . . . today people want sensationalism! The more you rape their senses, the happier they are!"
. . . .
"The Yacumo indian is a primitive and he has to be respected as such. You know, did you ever think of the ... the Yacumo point of view, that we might be the ones who are savages?"
"Well I've never thought of it that way, but it's an interesting idea."
"Yes, let's say things were reversed, right? and the Yacumo attacked your house, defiled everything that you held holy. You know that pig that was killed? That was food for those people. Now, what'd happen if somebody came to your house, when you were hungry, and took the little bit of food you had in the refrigerator, and threw it down the toilet? . . . would you behave in a civilized way? . . . would you like people to make money off your misery?"

But of course, Deodato himself is a filmmaker who has just had a pig shot on screen (although he wasn't actually terrorizing any "primitives" . . . ). In fact, Deodato and many of the participants in the film regret having made it and, in particular, the decision to kill and mutilate animals for shock value. Despite their regret, though, several of them still acknowledge the genius of the film, a genius which transcends the ethical choices involved in its filming.

Whatever retrospective view we may take of Cannibal Holocaust, the response to the director's ethical choices upon its first release were unambiguous: Deodato was arrested and charged first with obscenity, then with murder. He had convinced the actors who played the documentary crew to go into hiding for a year, but after the accusations were leveled against him, he was forced to track them down to prove his innocence. After the charge of murder was dropped, Deodato was charged with animal cruelty and the film was banned in Italy (it is purportedly the most banned film of all time).

Cannibal Holocaust has had a profound influence on exploitation cinema and spawned many immitators, though none with the subtlety and depth of the original. In addition to at least 6 unofficial sequels, the film was being remade (with animal mutilation and all) as early as 1981's Cannibal Ferox. 1999's The Blair Witch Project, though thematically very different, borrowed heavily from both the filmmaking techniques and marketing strategy of Cannibal Holocaust.

the trailer for Cannibal Holocaust:

memorable editing moment: Rather than any particular scene, it is the overall structure of Cannibal Holocaust's editing which is to be admired. Deodato uses 35mm for the real time narrative and 16mm for the film crew's footage, all of which is shot verite style (i.e. hand held, as if the filmmakers were "really" molesting primitives and interacting with cannibals). The complete consistency of this "verite" footage is what lends the film enough authenticity and power that it could be mistaken by authorites for a snuff film. It's potency is increased by placing it at the end of the film, after its recovery by our anthropologist. We see the interaction with each tribe first by our humanist anthropologist (whose job is made more difficult by their recent encounter with the exploitative film crew), then by the film crew ~ we see the aftermath of the damage before the damage itself. Add to this the profound beauty of the cinematography and Riz Ortolani (who also scored for Jacopetti and Prosperi)'s score, and the overall experience is far more powerful than the sum of its parts ~ the true mark of good editing.

"Keep rolling, we're going to get an Oscar for this!"

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