Interview: Ruggero Deodato, Director of Cannibal Holocaust

The annual Cine-Excess festival is a both an academic conference in which the world€™s gore whores descend upon London to wax lyrical about cinema€™s darkest hours, and an opportunity for fans to meet their heroes and watch extreme cinema in a darkened auditorium as nature intended. This year Cannibal Holocaust, a notorious, banned shocker that fell foul of UK censors on its original release for realistic depictions of human slaughter and animal snuff, because we don€™t like the little qweetuers being hurt, was showing in a new BBFC sanctioned cut, with a mere 15 second excised to keep the film in line with the country€™s strict rules on animal cruelty. Following the screening I was able to spend half an hour in the company of its vilified author. Ruggero Deodato may be celebrating his opus now, but back in the day it was no laughing matter. The Italian authorities, in an ironic extension of the film€™s denouement, wanted the film destroyed. Deodato€™s footage, depicting his protagonists being mutilated and dismembered, purported to be authentic in keeping with the movies€™ realist aesthetic, and consequently he found himself in court, forced to produce the cast on pain of a murder indictment. Fortunately they turned up. That may seem incredible, not least because there wasn€™t a shred of evidence against Deodato except for the movie, and murderers, though sometimes cunning, seldom make the mistake of recording their crime and releasing it into cinemas. Compare and contrast with the alleged misdemeanors of John Landis and Roman Polanski. Had Deodato committed a film crime perhaps? Well, more of that in the conversation to follow, but a criminal offence no. You might think it odd that Deodato had a day in court for making an offensive movie at all, whereas Michael Bay€™s never been troubled for so much as a parking ticket. It€™s a strange world, but the filmmakers are seldom as odd as the films themselves. This, as you might imagine, is true for Deodato. Sitting with the 72 year old director, who looks and sounds like my Italian barber, it€™s hard to believe that this convivial old gent is responsible for an orgy of vaginal impalement, turtle disembowelment, rape, murder and bad dubbing. Still, he put his name to it and would have to answer for it. Being Italian is no excuse. OWF:Last night I heard you say that you were now €œan icon€. What is it that you feel you represent and do you welcome it?
RD:I€™m a sinner who cannot get redemption. This film by becoming more and more of a cult, gives me more satisfaction in a way, and more glory, so I can€™t redeem myself from my sin.
OWF: Are you a penitent sinner?
RD: I can€™t be! My daughter had communion the other day and she said, €˜why don€™t you confess?€™ and I said €˜I can€™t, I€™m going to London in a few days to celebrate the movie!€™
OWF: €œYeah, let€™s hear it for gang rape!€
RD: You joke, but there is an element of truth.
OWF: I wasn€™t joking.
RD: It is considered now to be one of the ten most notorious films and it€™s a huge cult. There was a man who was on death row and he had a copy of Cannibal Holocaust in his cell. So, I€™m taken aback by all this but I€™m gratified by all the attention and notoriety the film gets.
OWF: It feeds itself, doesn€™t it?
RD: Oh yes.
OWF: It seems to me there may be some problems with Cannibal Holocaust. Not the violence, that€™s incidental, but the philosophy behind the film. The characters are vilified for being insensitive, culturally illiterate, exploitative and cruel, but your critics would argue that the film represents those self-same failings. That charge is leveled at you as director. What do you say to those people?
RD: For me, film is entertainment. That€™s what cinema is. It€™s Rossetti but it€™s also Jacopetti and Mondo Cane. I liked that movie for the images and the eloquence but what I didn€™t like was a scene where some men were condemned to death and going to be executed and Jacopetti asked them to postpone the execution, so that the sun would fall in a certain way and the sunset would make for a more beautiful shot. Y€™know, combined with the music€ bah bah bah baaa ba bahhhh bah. So I was disturbed by that technique. I hated that. Morally, I was disturbed by it. I mean, postpone an execution, it€™s a person€™s life you€™re dealing with! (Though they might have been grateful for the postponement €“ Ed) So that was the idea for Cannibal Holocaust €“ it€™s against that. It€™s against what the journalists are doing, setting everything up for the entertainment. It€™s against the voyeuristic element in reporting something. I wanted to explore that in my films, explore the philosophy behind getting the scoop, but it was so real that it turned against me. But what I wanted to show was that I hate journalists going up to a woman who€™s lost seven of her children in a dramatic way and saying €œhow do you feel?€ I mean, how the hell do you think she feels? What kind of question is that? It€™s sadistic. It€™s like journalists turning up at Auschwitz and saying to a Jew, €œwell how do you feel now your baby is dead?€ Every day on the TV, it€™s like that. So, it€™s an indictment of news gathering. Journalists are very protected. They can say whatever they want and they defend each other, while a film director, though the film is pure fiction and fantasy, will always be attacked by critics and journalists for what they€™re trying to say!
OWF: Well I€™m glad to have broken that cycle. Journalists would understand that critique, we€™d watch it and we€™d understand that that€™s what the film is trying to say, but the audience see the film and they look at the sadism on screen as it were, and they may be entertained by that, that€™s possible, so is there is a danger that because the film€™s so extreme that the message may be lost on the very people it€™s supposed to provoke into thinking? It€™s supposed to provoke them into thinking about whether they should they be enjoying it, but some manifestly will be, yes?
RD: (Pause) I€™ve always noticed the reaction to the scene, where they€™re sitting in the projection room and watching the killing and finally the last one dies and the camera falls; Alan Yates is dead. Each time, invariably, the audience gives a sign of relief €“ it€™s over, it€™s gone. The other moment of relief is when they say €œlet€™s burn the whole thing, let€™s not show it€€
OWF: Which ironically they tried to do with the real film.
RD: It seems to me obvious that the audience always reacts positively when the four characters die. For me, the most beautiful and poignant scene in the film is the one with the impaled woman, where the main character is smiling but when reminded he€™s on camera, changes his facial expression. That€™s the most significant scene in the film. Faye, his girlfriend, is horrified, but it€™s only after he changes his expression that she€™s reassured.
OWF: Okay, well let€™s talk about the ending, specifically audience reaction to it. The film€™s a critique of media exploitation and manipulation, €œreportage€ for the purposes of cheap entertainment. However, the ending might be seen as manipulative; a sating of the audience€™s bloodlust. They want to see these characters punished, I believe €“ I did certainly, and they are. Jack, who raped a girl, has his genitals severed, Faye is stripped, violated and beheaded, perhaps mirroring the turtle€™s death earlier in the film. Now, undeniably this has great impact, it€™s a powerful conclusion, but is there any part of you that thinks that the film€™s message would have been more stark, more powerful, had the villains of the piece got away with it? What were you saying to your audience with the ending your chose?
RD: In an American movie they wouldn€™t have been killed, because then you could have a sequel. They€™d have had a hunter or something, who€™d have gone in to get them. The film shows the will of the director to actually end it there.
OWF: Authenticity is one of the film€™s structuring themes, how much research did you do on indigenous Amazonian tribes?
RD: I did do some research, I mean I was aided by the fact I€™d shot Lost Cannibal World beforehand, though in a different part of the world. I studied tribes and rites, having filmed there, and lived there for a while, but whereas that film was about the tribe, the customs, the civilization, Cannibal Holocaust wasn€™t. I did transport some of the knowledge and experience into Cannibal Holocaust, but in that movie, the important element was the four journalists. The tribes€™ people were marginal. Yes, I documented the violence against the adulterous woman, that€™s documented €“ that has happened, but it hadn€™t necessarily happened with that group. I took some customs and transported it there, because it was important for the film but at the same time I didn€™t set out to study those tribes, I didn€™t set out to report about them, it was about the story. Keeping to the reality wasn€™t that important.
OWF: A common critique of exploitation movies is that they€™re dangerous because they can potentially unsettle the minds of their audience, causing people of a €œsensitive disposition€ to act on what they€™ve seen. Do you think there€™s an argument to say that the opposite is true, that in fact exploitation movies help to keep society in check, because they€™re receptacles for the audience€™s blood lust, sexual deviance, violent impulses, hatred, misogyny, morbid fantasies, etc, and because they have a repository for all that, a channel, they remain unburdened by it in their day to day lives?
RD: I€™ve been doing the rounds for about ten years, doing the festivals, where I€™m invited for Cannibal Holocaust, y€™know and other fairly violent movies, festivals that specialise in exploitation style movies. The people I€™ve met there, the fan base, the people who actually pay to go and see the movies, the people who take part, are the nicest, most lovely people I€™ve ever met. They may be scary in appearance, with piercings, tattoos and stuff, but they arrive at these conventions with their kids in the prams, dressed up as little devils, but it€™s like a carnival. They changed my mind about people€™s appearance; they€™re incredibly peaceful. These festivals, these conventions, are about having fun in a very peaceful way; it€™s just a fun weekend. Yesterday, the audience was not like that. For the time it was different €“ no piercings, no tattoos. Still, if you go to Venice, say , that€™s the scary venue; that€™s where people take out the knives €“ the liars, the cheaters, the whores, the pimps, they€™re all there and it€™s much more scary. I now have proof that for people this is just entertainment, in one ear, out the other, but it remains in their heart; they grasp the message, they understand what it€™s all about. All this violence, it€™s just marginal. I arrived with my daughter at the festival. She laughed! She joked, played with the actors €“ for her it€™s a holiday. To her Cannibal Holocaust is a joke. I don€™t understand it but there it is.
OWF: I€™ll take that as a yes. Ruggero Deodato, thank you very much. Cannibal Holocaust played at this year€™s Cine Excess Film Festival.

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