AFED #3: Cannibal Holocaust (Italy, 1980); Dir. Ruggero Deodato

A few weeks back I found myself sitting in a pub discussing Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape, a documentary released last year about the absurd furore that preceded the implementation of the Video Recordings Act in 1984. Having been only seven/eight years old at the time of the controversy it had largely passed me by and I was asked how I felt about the subject - and the censorship debate it sparked - retrospectively.

Being something of a woolly liberal I instinctively adopt an anti-censorship stance. It's not that I disagree that there can ever be grounds for banning or censoring work, but rather in the vast majority of cases I fail to see what's actually being achieved. Provided that children are protected from extreme material - that responsibility surely lies squarely with the parents/guardians - then mature adults should be trusted to make their own decisions. Isn't that the basis of any democratic society?

Yet the subject continues to gnaw away at me. After all, isn't the purpose of all commercial art to elicit an emotional and/or intellectual response? And doesn't history demonstrate that radical material can result sometimes in antisocial and divisive behaviour? Yes, of course.

It's just that there's very little evidence to suggest that the films which became a cause celebre in the early eighties ever posessed the power to deprave and corrupt. Still, unlike the censorship lobbyists I prefer to come at things from an informed perspective which has led me, inevitably, to an uncut version of the most infamous nasty of them all...

It's easy to see why the video cover of Cannibal Holocaust became the definitive image of the campaign. Unlike many of the nasties cover, it's in no way misleading about the extremity of the content. Ruggero Deodato's film doesn't pull any punches but it's regrettable that energy couldn't be channeled less recklessly.

The story ostensibly falls into two parts. First an American anthropologist (Robert Kerman) travels to the Amazon to try and discover the fate of a team of missing documentary film-makers. In the heart of the jungle he encounters both their remains and the cannibal tribe who devoured them. After bribing the tribe with a tape recorder he's able to retrieve the cannisters of film the documentarians shot and return to New York with it.

In the second part the reels are developed, revealing the film-makers' ruthless exploitation of the tribe and leaving no doubt that they entirely deserved their fate.

To fully understand the conceit of Cannibal Holocaust, as well as the rank hypocrisy that lies at its heart, it's useful to have some knowledge the film culture that inspired it. In 1962 Mondo Cane (literally "A Dog's World) had been released to considerable success. Essentially compiled of a series of vignettes shot around the world, Italian film-makers Franco Prosperi and Gualtiero Jacopetti sought to shed light on practices and customs that would be obscure, weird or just plain shocking to western sensibilities.

When appropriate footage couldn't be obtained, well, they simply faked it! Mondo cinema was born, a weirdly compelling fusion of fact and fabrication. Prosperi and Jacopetti would remain at the forefront of the movement for the next decade with such work as Africa Addio and the remarkable slavery epic Addio Zio Tom (a film I'll surely discuss again before the year's end). Meanwhile a swath of less scrupulous imtators began upping the ante for obscure and violent tribal customs in such films as the Climati and Morra's Savage Man, Savage Beast (1975).

It's the cynical practices of the mondo film-makers, and the public's appetite for increasingly more explicit and sensational content, that seem the most obvious inspiration for Deodato's ire. Unfortunately the righteous indignation doesn't sit quite so comfortably when you're having your cake and eating it. On Cannibal Holocaust's release the rumour was widely circulated that the actors were missing, presumed dead (a trick later borrowed for The Blair Witch Project). Accused of making a snuff movie, the director was even detained by the Italian authorities.

The verisimilitude of the violence has been lauded as the source of the film's power and there's no doubt that some scenes are shockingly graphic; in fact unacceptably so. Several animals are killed live on camera during the course of the story and it's astonishing that the cast and crew felt this could be justified.

According to film scholar Julian Petley this juxtaposition of real cruelty gives the fake (human) violence greater authenticity. Not only did I not find this to be the case, but this arbitrary slaughter of defenceless creatures felt like a sublimated fascism that undermined the supposedly anti-imperialist message.

One must acknowledge that Cannibal Holocaust does raise some worthwhile points about screen violence and audience complicity. The documentary crew, you could suggest, are our nakedly projected egos. When they snigger upon discovering a decaying human sacrifice then their contempt is, by association, our own. "The more you rape the sense the happier they are," observes one of the team about the general public. If the point is rather belligerantly made perhaps it's something that seemed more innovative thirty years ago than it does today.

Other positives are the quality of the cinematography - which could hardly have been appreciated in the days of nth generation VHS copies - and the haunting score by Riz Ortalani, which I suspect will still be echoing in my head long after I've dismissed the rest.

Cannibal Holocaust is a film I felt obliged to sit through at some point, but can't say it's been a pleasurable experience or even a particularly memorable one. Does it deserve it's reputation? Probably, although I'm not convinced there's sufficient reason not to permit an uncut version to be released in the UK. There will always be films which transgress the boundaries of what's acceptable, but they seldom represent a threat from the margins. No grounds for a moral panic.


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  2. Thanks P. I decided against any specific descriptions of the animal violence but suffice that it's extremely graphic and unpleasant. It exposes any political intent as nothing more than a sham, but it's helped Deodato to milk the film's infamy for all it's worth. He is unquestionably a skillful director, but not I feel a principled one.

  3. Pretty much exactly how I feel about the film too. Undeniably skillfully made and with a clever, deliberately provocative structure, but essentially hypocritical and like you, I find Petley's defence of it's relentless cruelty far below a critic normally more considered than this - I think it was clearly a budgetary issue (Deodato has largely admitted as much in subsequent interviews) and any asthetic role allocated to it I think is apologistic.

    I look forward to reading your review of Adios Zio Tom - a film I view in a similar way to Cannibal Holocaust

  4. Thanks for your thoughts Neil. Petley's intellectualisation of the issues surrounding the film certainly misses the wood for the trees. I'd stop short of calling it a defence but pushing the boundaries in the name of 'art' (if there was such a lofty ambition) doesn't absolve one of moral accountability and that's the point he seems to miss. That said I guess we become complicit in choosing to watch it.

    In the unlikely event Dr Petley reads this I'd be glad to hear his rebuttal.


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