Overview: Dubbed “The Cannibal Cop,” former NYPD officer Gilberto Valle was convicted of conspiring to kidnap and eat women in March 2013. Valle had argued it was all a fantasy, but the prosecution’s narrative convinced jurors otherwise. His story made headlines not only for its chilling details, but also because of its landmark decision regarding a man many consider “patient zero” in a growing thought-police trend across the nation. Featuring unprecedented, intimate interviews with Valle and his family, as well as insights from lawyers, journalists, psychological professionals and criminal experts, THOUGHT CRIMES: THE CASE OF THE CANNIBAL COP explores this complicated case, asking if someone can be found guilty for his or her most dangerous thoughts.
This documentary includes unique visual and video elements, including courtroom sketches, online chats between Valle and his alleged “co-conspirators,” home movies from Valle’s youth and intimate vérité footage of Valle while sequestered in his mother’s home under house arrest.
Expectations: Right up front let me state that this is another one of those films that I starved myself of any publicity. I haven’t even seen the trailer I embed below. I understand the most basic premise – a cop fantasized about cannibalizing women and was seen as a criminal. Even without that fact and you were just given this documentary’s title it would leave you wondering just what the hell the nitty-gritty of this film is. The juxtaposition of “thought crimes” and “Cannibal Cop” makes you scratch you head. Someone else might have a recollection of this in the news, but I don’t. I am eager to understand this story and the gruesome plot and hot debate it generates.
Gut Reaction: First off, there is a lot to take in here. There is ugly, disturbing behavior, there is an abuse of position, there is thoughts of a post-modern age crime called a ‘thought crime,’, there is one man’s fantasy life coming back to haunt and ruin his life. All of this coalesces into an 85 minute documentary to truly stump any viewer. Well, that might not be a fair statement – some might not be able to get past the first aspect of the disturbing behavior; the jury in Valle’s trial didn’t.
Everybody has either some guilty pleasure, or kink, obsession or fetish. Everybody has a dream or fantasy and most never get acted on. It is okay. Gilberto’s fantasy writing, however, was so extreme that it started to blur the line and go past the point of no return. The issues it raises are not cut and dry; the issues at film’s end are not all answered. The issues though are boiled down to two themes that seem equally balanced. There is the story of Gilberto and the online presence he had and then there is the story of the criminal trials and the debate raised. However, what it does not shed a lot of light on is the notion and threat of ‘thought crime.’ Yes, it defines the notion and even cites the movie Minority Report, but that title could really be removed from the film’s title. That is a minor complaint.
It was convenient that the filmmaker could film Gilberto Valle under house arrest, but why did they often film him cooking and serving meals with meat in it? Did he have to see him cooking bacon? That is just another one of those minor mistakes. It all adds up to a interesting debate, but no resolution or closure for viewers or for Valle. In the end it is deemed that he has served adequate time for abusing his police job and was acquitted on any other charge which was appealed. He waits another hearing.
Bonus: My brains are still rattled weighing all the issues here. So, to help clarify things here is an interview HBO had with the film maker Erin Lee Carr (pictured).
HBO: How did you first learn about Gil’s case?
Erin Lee Carr: I read about it in the tabloids and online. I felt myself immediately drawn to the story. As a young woman who lives in New York, it was a really scary reality that this was in the news and not something on a television show.
HBO: What made you want to tell this story?
ELC: I worked at VICE and a company called The Verge covering the internet and technology. So when I see a salacious and talked-about story that meets with the internet — its kismet. If you can package an intellectual debate in something juicy, that’s a good route to making a doc.
HBO:What surprised you about Gil?
ELC: It surprised me how nervous he was when we first met, in prison. I think he was as nervous as I was. Having somebody who he didn’t know visit him in prison was a scary experience, especially since I was a woman and all the allegations surrounded young women.
HBO: Did your gender influence your conversations with Gil?
ELC: In broad terms, I think it’s really cool to be a female journalist. Not to seem sexist, but I think we’re better listeners and less intimidating. As a woman looking at this story where women were the targets, I think it was important that the director was a woman. That being said, the producer is male, the editor is male. It takes all sorts to make a weird movie.
HBO: What was your take on Gil’s relationship with his family?
ELC: The Valles are fiercely loyal. They always believed in their son and not the allegations. It’s really easy to dip into: Would he have done it? His family always believed in his innocence. I believe that’s what kept him sane when he was in solitary confinement and in prison.
HBO: Gil’s ex-wife is notably absent from the film. Was this a deliberate choice?
ELC: It was really important that the ex-wife have a point of view in the film, as she is the one that had to uncover all that stuff. Due to the graphic nature of the case, I always knew it would be really difficult for her to talk about it. Editor Andrew Coffman and I brainstormed how to bring her into the film and the automatic choice was that we use her court testimony. I think so many people overlook the fact of how scary it must have been for her. It was really important that we include her reference.
HBO: How did you hope viewers feel about Gil?
ELC: I think that film represents an evolution in how we felt about him. It was really important that the audience not know how I feel. I took a page out of winning playbooks — a lot of the documentaries that I love are the ones where I don’t know how the director felt. That’s what continues the dialogue afterwards. The response so far has been so varied, and I think that’s really cool.
HBO: What takeaway do you hope viewers have?
ELC: We live in a dangerous society when our Google searches can be used as evidence against us. I think that more now than ever, Googling is an extension of the mind. We don’t know what is thought and what is action. It’s important not to monitor ourselves and say, “OK, I don’t want to Google this, because it will be tied to me later.” That’s a dangerous precedent. I Google whatever I want to as a researcher, as a journalist, as a woman, as a person that lives in this world. The internet is an incredible tool and one that I refuse to do away with out of fear.
In Conclusion: Boom! That last question and answer above is exactly what I got out of this documentary. While, many I think are caught up in the perversion and the lengths Gilberto went to flesh out the fantasy, the real issue here is the precedence set when what we think and type can get us arrested. That means that searching the words “cannibal cop” and reading about it and writing about it could be construed as condoning the behavior. In a word that means – dangerous.
The intriguing documentary debuted MONDAY, MAY 11 at 9:00pm. Other HBO air dates are 05.14 at 11:30pm; 05.20 at 2:15am and 05.29 at 2:25am.
Next Week: On MONDAY, MAY 18 at 9:00pm is the debut of SOUTHERN RITES which is all about racial tensions and murder in small town Georgia.