Human pastries: Os Canibais de Garanhuns (The Cannibals of Garanhuns, Brazil)

In 2012, police in Garanhuns, Brazil, arrested for murder Jorge Beltrao Negromonte da Silveira, his wife, Isabel Pires, and his mistress, Bruna Cristina Oliveira, who all lived together in a group they called “The Cartel”. Residing with the Cartel was a small child named Vitória, who had been the daughter of their first victim. In 2018, all three adults were found guilty and sentenced to decades in prison.

However, the worldwide public interest in the crimes did not stem from their murder of three young mothers, but from the fact that the Cartel stripped the flesh from the victims and baked them into salgados, salty, deep-fried pastries, which were then sold to the unsuspecting public. To the disappointment of the media, the pictures of the perpetrators showed them as three ordinary Brazilian people, not the monsters the public had expected.

Isabel Pires, left, Jorge Beltrao Negromonte da Silveira, and Bruna Cristina Oliveira

This case, one of about one hundred reported incidents involving cannibalism since the year 2000, is of particular interest because it incorporates many of the issues considered in this blog.

  1. Reports of cannibals from earliest times almost invariably labelled them ‘monsters’, the same term the media used in this case to describe the members of the Cartel. Silveira muddied this even further by accusing his mistress Oliveira of being a witch, who had tortured him and Pires into taking parts in “purification” rituals.
  2. Cannibalism has been a useful accusation against colonised peoples since the time of Columbus, and Brazil has been particularly singled out in the literature as offering indisputable examples of “savage” cannibalism. Gananath Obeyesekere, one of the foremost scholars of cannibalism, writes that he omitted a chapter on the Tupinamba of Brazil from his book Cannibal Talk, which casts significant doubt on the existence of systemic savage cannibalism, partly because of the passionate commitment of Brazilian scholars to the “empirical reality of conspicuous anthropophagy”.
  3. Contemporary narratives of cannibalism, particularly since Jack the Ripper, assume that there are psychogenic bases for the act; de Silveira was found to have written a book called Revelações de um Esquizofrênico (Revelations of a Schizophrenic).
  4. Unknowing cannibals are often described as “innocent” in that they are offered meat without recognising its provenance. The enduringly popular Sweeney Todd, the ‘demon barber of Fleet Street’, is supposed to have, in the late eighteenth century, murdered his customers and furnished their flesh to his accomplice, Margery Lovett, who turned them into meat pies for her unknowing but enthusiastic customers, just as the Cartel did with their salgados. In neither case were there any misgivings because, according to da Silveira, human meat tastes almost the same as beef.
  5. Reports of cannibalism usually leave readers hungry for explanations – the motivation of the act. The Cartel chose its victims partly on the basis that they were tackling overpopulation by killing off single mothers who were unable to care for their children. The Cartel had its own methods of selecting victims, involving not just their unmarried maternity but a set of rules provided by “spiritual entities” which determined which women were evil and should be killed, based on the numbers on their identity cards adding up to 666.
  6. At the heart of this case lies an ethical question: is there a fundamental difference between a salgado (salty) snack full of beef and one filled with human meat? The premise of arguments for such a difference is the concept of anthropocentrism, the belief that (some) humans can transcend their disowned yet undeniable animality, and attain a higher moral status than other animals, such that intentionally killing a human is ‘murder’ while killing other animals is considered commercial harvesting. This sometimes called “speciesism”, except that there has never existed a culture where humans honestly considered all other humans their equals, or sometimes just human narcissism.

Silveira was sentenced to 71 years in prison, while his wife received 68 years and his mistress 71 years and 10 months. This is on top of another conviction in 2014, where the trio were found guilty of killing Jéssica Camila da Silva Pereira. Silveira was sentenced to 23 years in prison for that murder, while his wife and mistress were each sentenced to 20 years.


References

Araújo, E. L. V. M. d. (2018). Estudo do Caso dos Canibais de Garanhuns. (Law thesis), Centro Universitário Tabosa De Almeida, Caruaru, Brazil. Retrieved from http://repositorio.asces.edu.br/handle/123456789/1548 

Haining, P. (2007). Sweeney Todd: The True Story of The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. London, Robson Books.

Hunter, B. (2018). “Cannibal killers served flesh-filled pastries to neighbours” Toronto Sun, (December 18). Retrieved from https://torontosun.com/news/world/cannibal-killers-served-flesh-filled-pastries-to-neighbours

Lam, K. (2018) “Cannibal trio sentenced for killing women, stuffing flesh into pastries”, New York Post, (December 17). Retrieved from https://nypost.com/2018/12/17/cannibal-trio-sentenced-for-killing-women-stuffing-flesh-into-pastries/

Obeyesekere, G. (2005). Cannibal talk : The Man-eating Myth and Human Sacrifice in The South Seas. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Other fun cannibalism facts can be found at: thecannibalguy.com/category/cannibal-news/ and thecannibalguy.com/category/on-cannibals/

Eat the imperialists: HOW TASTY WAS MY LITTLE FRENCHMAN (Como Era Gostoso o Meu Francês) – Nelson Pereira dos Santos, 1971

Let’s get this out of the way – there is nudity. Lots of it and throughout the movie. Well, it’s set in pre-colonial Brazil, and the Indigenous peoples did not bother with a lot of clothes, so it’s historically accurate. To ensure authenticity, the actors and the crew were all naked, so that nudity would become natural. If that bothers you, please read the blog but skip the movie.

While it was refreshingly authentic, the nudity was also a problem. First, because the authenticity is somewhat diminished, as The New York Times critic pointed out, by the fact that the natives are “middle-class white Brazilians… stripped down and reddened up for the occasion”. Secondly, the film was refused entry to the Cannes Film Festival because of all the swinging dicks. In Brazil, the censors were eventually persuaded that the natives indeed did walk around naked, but remained vehemently opposed to the nude Frenchman, a telling comment on the racist distinction that the film was intending to expose.

So, the plot in a nutshell: the French and the Portuguese are fighting to control the rich lands of South America. Each has allied with local tribes who are at constant war with each other, often involving (so the European narrative goes) capturing and eating each other’s warriors.  The Tupinambás are allied with the French, while the Tupiniquins are allied with the Portuguese. The Frenchman of the title escapes his own command, is captured by the Portuguese, and is then captured by the Tupinambás, who are allies of the French, but believe him to be Portuguese, so intend to eat him. Got all that? – there will be a test.

Tupi custom involved bringing the captive into the community, feeding and homing him, and even finding him a wife, then eventually killing him in a ceremony that will allow them to capture his essence, bravery, speed, and so on.

This wide-spread belief about the Tupi comes from a European who was captured but then escaped in 1554, came back to Europe and wrote a book. His name was Hans Staden, and he was actually a German who was trying to get to India. But since it was the French who were invading South America at the time, the director changed his nationality.

De Bry’s engravings of Tupi cannibalism were “eaten up” by the Europeans.

Tupi cannibalism has a whole literature explaining it or denying it – William Arens claimed the ‘evidence’ was mostly based on Staden’s account, which contained several contradictions, and had been continually retold as if it had happened to new re-tellers. Other anthropologists such as Rene Girard explained Tupi cannibalism as a seamless explanation for the way culture and religion have evolved. The universal violence of the human species is redirected toward the outsider, who is taken into the tribe, but remains foreign enough to be killed as a scapegoat, to release the social pressure that would lead to endless internal revenge feuds. For many, Jesus became the ultimate scapegoat under this theory, even to the extent of insisting that his followers eat and drink wine and bread transubstantiated into his “blood and body” in the Eucharist ritual.

For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.

John 6:55

The Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro proposed a ‘post-structural anthropology’ in his book Cannibal Metaphysics. De Castro sought to ‘decolonise’ anthropology by challenging the increasingly familiar view that it was ‘exoticist and primitivist from birth’, denying that cannibalism even existed, and so transferred the conquered peoples from the cannibalistic villains of the West into mere fictions of colonialism. Arguing that the ‘Other’ is just like us is to deny any separate identity and to return the focus of anthropology to that which interests us: ourselves. Rather than deny the existence of cannibalism, which allows a reclassification of the Amerindian peoples as like the colonialists, de Castro examines the details of Tupinamba cannibalism, which was ‘a very elaborate system for the capture, execution, and ceremonial consumption of their enemies’. This alternative view of Amerindian culture rejects the automatic assumption of the repugnance of cannibalism, which serves to either confront it or deny its existence.

Well, that’s pretty much where this film planned to go. Pereira dos Santos challenges the Eurocentric perspective which insists on a superior civilisation overcoming a primitive one. It is true that Tupi civilisation was destroyed by the slavery, smallpox and slaughter of the Portuguese who, the film tells us at the end, also wiped out their allies the Tupiniquins. The Tupi peoples are now a remnant, confined to small areas and currently being decimated by COVID-19.

But the chief, in the killing ceremony which promises the Frenchman’s body parts to his relatives (his wife will get his neck), tells the story as a mirror image:

“I am here to kill you. Because your people have killed many of ours, and eaten them.”

So the film asks: who were/are the cannibals? It does not fully succeed in telling this story, because the audience gets involved with the Frenchman’s story, instead of his captors. Pereira dos Santos lamented that the public:

“…identified with the French, with the coloniser. All spectators lamented the death of the hero. They did not understand that the hero was the indigenous, not the white, so much were they influenced by the adventures of John Wayne.”

Nonetheless, the binary of the colonised and the powerless occupied victims is so deeply embedded in our cultural stories that it is refreshing to see this mirror image version, where the indigenous win the battle, if not the war.

THE CANNIBAL CLUB – O Clube dos Canibais (Guto Parente, 2018)

This is a movie about privilege – the rich literally eating the poor. It may be a metaphor, but it is particularly apposite to current Brazilian politics, where the destruction of the Amazon is threatening to kill and consume us all. But is there a nation, even a community, where someone is not eating someone else, if not literally then practically? The film was made in 2018, before President Jair Bolsonaro was sworn in and gave the green light for the burning of the Amazon rainforest. But the cannibalism of this club is not just political – it is about the consumption of the poor by those who own the wealth. It would have made the same points whatever the results of the election.

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Otavio (Tavinho Teixeira) and Gilda (Ana Luiza Rois) have a hobby – Gilda seduces members of their staff and Otavio watches from a distance then kills the worker with an axe as they both climax. They then prepare the meat for their dinner.

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A bit over a year ago, this blog looked at the film “Eat the Rich”, in which the workers fought back against their effete bosses. Pure fantasy of course; in reality, the rich eat the poor: they swallow their surplus labour, they squeeze rent from them, they sell them their shoddy products paid for by lending them money at ruinous rates, and they send their children off to war. Why not go the next step and literally cook them for dinner?

The rich also hang out together with other rich people, and despise the poor. Everything decadent is considered better and more desirable.

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The club in the title is an elite group of privileged and powerful men – women are not invited. For their pre-dinner entertainment, they sit and watch two performers have sex, during which they are beaten to death and subsequently served at the black-tie dinner.

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Their chairman is the influential politician Borges (Pedro Domingues) who rails against the depravity of those who threaten the traditional morality of Brazil, whom he describes as “poors, delinquents, pederasts and filthy scum”. That makes is awkward when Borges is seen by Gilda as he is being buggered by a servant.

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This puts Otavio and Gilda in peril – they have a secret that Borges will happily kill to conceal. But can they kill Borges first? In the funniest line of the movie, Otavio objects to Gilda’s murderous plan:

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Because to the rich, killing and eating the servants is no more murder than beheading a chicken. So they plan to get the new caretaker, Jonas (Zé Maria) to do the dirty work, then they will go through their ritual: Jonas will have sex with Gilda, then at the climax, Otavio will kill him with an axe.

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Of course, these things never go as smoothly as the conspirators wish.

It’s pretty slapstick cannibalism, which is a shame, because it’s a Brazilian film, and that should make it a bit more interesting – Brazil was the source of so many of the stories of cannibalism that early explorers brought back to shock the gentle folk of Europe and secure funds for journeys of colonialism and genocide. The Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, in his book Cannibal Metaphysics (2014), sought to ‘decolonise’ anthropology by challenging the increasingly familiar view that these stories were mere fictions of colonialism. Rather than deny the existence of cannibalism, which would simply reclassify the Amerindian peoples as ‘like us’, de Castro examines the details of Tupinamba cannibalism, which was ‘a very elaborate system for the capture, execution, and ceremonial consumption of their enemies’. This alternative view of Amerindian culture rejects the automatic assumption of the repugnance of cannibalism – instead, it owns the history or mythology. This could have been a far more interesting film if the cannibalism had been owned by all sides and interpreted as a unique identity, rather than just being a rather crude metaphor of class struggle.

The film got 57% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is not bad, but not good. The reviewer from Variety said

“A diverting, stylish, but ultimately rather trite satire whose social critique and grand guignol aspects never quite come to a full boil.”

By the way – check out the Cannibal Club in Los Angeles.

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No, I haven’t been there. I understand they do not have a vegetarian option.

Also, it’s a fake website. Sorry.

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