Erin Lee Carr is a documentary filmmaker based in New York City. After producing short videos at Vice for several years, she released her first feature length documentary, Thought Crimes in 2015. The film follows the trial and sentencing of Gilberto Valle, the so called New York “cannibal cop,” who was accused of plotting to rape, murder and eat several women. However, the great majority of evidence against Valle exists in the virtual world of the online fetish fantasy community he was part of, not in real world physical proof. The Curator had the chance to talk with Erin about Thought Crimes, and how it confronts the ethical dilemmas of criminalizing fantasies and punishing intentions.
Sarah Hanssen: Thought Crimes is a work of journalism, but there are clearly moments of creative expression, can you talk about those creative decisions?
Erin Lee Carr: I think what you see in this film is a collaboration of creative expression as most documentary films are. The editor of this film was Andrew Coffman and it was important to both of us that this not be a tabloid treatment of the Cannibal Cop case but a meditation of what it means to live a different life online. Who is Gil Valle offline and online? Were his google searches thoughts or actions? What ramifications does that have for every day people like you and I? Those are all concepts that we wanted to implement in the film so most of the choices and castings revolved around that.
SH: Even though the film is mainly set in Valle’s unassuming Queens two story home, there’s a dark, unsettling chill that permeates all the material. I doubt I’d want to be in the same room with Valle for days on end, especially after reading the transcripts of his murderous fantasies. Were you ever scared of Valle? In the face of those frightening feelings, what inspired your decision to make Thought Crimes?
ELC: I was not scared of Valle, of course it was a bit weird to know the thoughts and words that landed him in jail, but he was kind of unassuming in person. It was very difficult for Valle to be stuck inside and under house arrest. I think the dark atmosphere that you or the audience may be feeling is the feeling of being trapped.
SH: Your access to Valle is remarkable. How did you cultivate such an intimate atmosphere? and yet, at times I felt like he was performing, that for all the “nice guy,” “average NY cop,” talk, there was a pathological psychopath underneath. Did you ever feel that he was manipulating you? If yes, why did you downplay that side of him from the film?
ELC: Gil and I spoke for nine months before I ever introduced a camera, that was mostly because he was in prison but I definitely think that it helped create comfortable nature of our working relationship. It’s astute to make the observation that he seemed to be acting at certain points but the reality was this — Valle was incarcerated and the case was still being litigated, so he was motivated to act a certain way. I think, that like most humans, there are many different facets of Mr. Valle and we encountered a couple of them.
SH: Your film is not so much a portrait of the “cannibal cop,” as a warning against creating a legal precedent where individuals can be punished for thought crimes, that is, professed criminal conspiracies that do not actually manifest in action. However, as a case study, Valle is not a clear victim of paranoid prosecutors, in fact, he does seem quite capable of following through with his plans of kidnapping and murder. Were you ever tempted to exclude information about Valle in order to tell a story that fit the intention of a film about thought crimes? Or, is there any material that didn’t make the cut which you wish audiences could have seen?
ELC: I feel conflicted about his guilt or innocence and I am definitely not sure that he “would have done it.” I think there were aspects of the case, like the fact that there was no physical evidence, that made it a very weak case for the prosecution. I do think that everything that we wanted audiences to see for the most part made the cut.
SH: I’ve mentioned how impressed I am with the access you had to Valle. Even if a viewer agrees with the idea that Valle cannot be imprisoned for his fantasies, we all recognize that his fetishization of suffering, murder, and cannibalism, are terrifying. Most of us find it easier to ignore this depravity and suppress the knowledge of how cruel human beings can be. Has the making of this film changed how you see humanity?
ELC: I had to look at dark fetish net… a lot. That was fairly difficult for my psyche. I think as a woman, it is very difficult look at women being tortured, a very obvious statement, but true. I know that there is a decent amount of violence against women but this was really next level. To be honest, sometimes I had to shut the computer off and play with with my dog Gary. After the jury reached their “guilty” verdict, Judge Gardephe thanked the them for their time but apologized by saying that the content of this trial involved “material that degrades the human spirit and corrupts the human.” I believe Judge Gardephe was correct.
SH: Finally, what do you hope audiences will take away from Thought Crimes?
ELC: Mostly I wanted people to think. To think about Gil Valle as a human being, to look at the ramifications for our behavior online, to think about first amendment rights in the digital age…all those things are important and worth thinking about.