Frisky Q&A: Erin Lee Carr, Director Of “Thought Crimes,” The Documentary About The Cannibal Cop

The story of Gilberto Valle, disgraced NYPD officer and eternally-monikered “Cannibal Cop,” is familiar to all. He was an officer of the law, charged to protect and serve the people, but he was also a man with deep, dark sexual fantasies of kidnapping, cooking and eating women. The story was perfect tabloid fodder, and dominated the headlines in 2012, when he was arrested and brought to trial and comvicted for conspiracy to kidnap. Then, in an unprecedented move, the judge overturned his conviction, releasing Vallle to house arrest to await a new trial.

Oral arguments for the government’s appeal of the acquittal are set to start tomorrow, May 12, a day after the premiere of “Thought Crimes,” an HBO documentary directed by Erin Lee Carr that delves deeper than the broad strokes of the tabloid coverage. The film is excellent, but difficult to watch. There’s extremely graphic and upsetting footage of women, interspersed with a haunting shot of Valle’s face, illuminated by the glow of a screen. There are various interviews with family members, lawyers and other experts, all of whom seem to take a clear stance on his guilt, one way or the other.

The most difficult thing of all, is reconciling how you feel about the case after watching it. What seemed from the start like a surefooted crime, with Valle worthy of being throw in jail for life, is now less clear. The crime that Valle was convicted — and acquitted — for is not based out of any real action. It was about his thoughts. It’s this intersection between what we think and what we actually do that Carr was interested in exploring, and she does so with great sensitivity and grace. I sat at down with her to discuss the film and the case.

The Frisky: What drew you to the story?

Erin Lee Carr: I read about it in the tabloids, and it seemed like my worst fear. That it was a police officer that was thinking about kidnapping and eating young women, in a city that has a bit of a mistrust for the NYPD, seemed like a new low.

It’s fascinating! My sister is a lawyer, and she texted me because she saw him in the courtroom and said, “The cannibal cop is here and he looks normal!”

Yeah, he didn’t look normal in the initial press coverage. It was so doctored, all the photos of him. He never said anything and I think it created an atmosphere where nobody really knew who he was.

How did you go about getting access to him? What where the steps?

I met with Daniel Engber, who’s a reporter at Slate who had covered the case in a more positive way. I assumed they were in contact, so I got coffee with him and asked if he would ask Gil if I could be put on his approved visitors list. But first, I got put on his approved email list.

Okay, so there are steps. There are levels.

Yes, there are totally steps. So, I got approved and Gil and I started talking on email. He really wanted to talk — he was in federal prison — and then, he asked if I would come visit him. Nobody had really visited him, everyone just kind of emailed him about things, and so I had to go through a background check from the federal prison –luckily, I’ve never been arrested. [Laughs] I was nervous … but after three visits I was asked to leave the prison.

What! You only got three visits with him in prison? Why?

I called the bureau of prisons, I asked for a response, and they said, “Well, we’re not gonna discuss it.”

Really!

He was so freaked out. I was freaked out because I thought my access was really messed up, and because, you know, I needed to get video. He was a high-profile case. He was in solitary for a while, because he was a cop and cops don’t do well in prison. But, he did fine in general pop[ulation] after he got released.

What was he like in general? When you spoke with him did he seem threatening?

Not at all. He did not seem threatening. It’s really important that I don’t speak for him. I was really nervous, when I first started visiting him. It was just a very unorthodox, weird situation, and I got more comfortable as time went on. We filmed like, 15 times at his house. He was really brave and really great to do it, but the fact remained that there were still these topics we were talking about, so every now and then things would sort of creep into my mind, but I tried to keep it at bay and just look at the facts.

The whole film was very objective, which I really liked. I thought that was impressive.

Thank you. It was very difficult. I had a bond with this person, and I was really fortunate that I worked with Andrew Rossi, a really celebrated filmmaker, and his editor Andrew Coffman. They were the secret sauce. It was really hard to remain objective, because this was a person who had suffered a miscarriage of justice — but HBO would never accept a propaganda piece about the cannibal cop. It was a labor.

Did learning more about what he was prosecuted for — the idea of a thought crime, your actual thoughts being damaging enough to put you in prison — change the way you lived your life online?

I really try to make it so that it doesn’t inhibit my behaviors online because I think it’s really dangerous to live in a culture where we’re afraid that what we’re Googling could be used to prosecute us. That being said, yeah. I changed my passwords. I go incognito, I use safe practices. I would say that I practice a lot of safe internet now. Don’t give your boyfriend or girlfriend your passwords!

Do you think the internet is dangerous?

I think it has the potential to do great good and it has the potential to be dangerous. It’s how we use it as a society. But I think that it does a lot more good than evil.

What was the main takeaway you wanted audiences to leave with when you set out to make this film?

It was really important to me that this wasn’t a tabloid or legal treatment of the case of the cannibal cop It was more about behaviors online. Who we are online doesn’t represent who we are offline and what are the legal and psychological components to that? I talked a lot with my family. I think it was always like, “People are so drawn to this case, but what would the case be without the societal implications?” Marrying those two things was incredibly important. I was always in the edit room, pushing “Let’s talk about the internet more!” and [the editors] were like, “Listen, nobody cares about the internet.” [Laughs]

I think the most interesting part was everything related tothe internet. The performative aspect of what you do on Twitter or Instagram — your output versus your actual life. 

My favorite line is from Laurie Penny, who’s a Nieman fellow and a writer [in the film]. She ways, “I tell things to Google that I wouldn’t even tell my best friend.” There’s an elongated discussion about how the internet is finding out who you are before you even find out who you are. Think about young women, growing up, finding out what sexuality is. I love that. I had never thought about it in a way that the internet was finding out who we are before we know who we are. It’s a shift in identity, and I’m fascinated with that. I wonder what the internet is doing [to our minds].

Do you think he intended on actually acting out his fantasies?

It’s like, the behavior is escalating, but I also think that he was not given a fair shake. Typically what happens is there’s a sting operation that happens, like an undercover agent says, “Hey, I’m serious. Let’s meet,” and that is the barometer for an overt act. Because Gil was a police officer, he didn’t get that. So , we never know if he would’ve really done it. The overt acts that the prosecution says he made, I never thought they stood up. The FBI put a tracker [on his car], and he just went to work, home, work, home, work, home. I think that tends to make us believe that he wouldn’t have done it.

Let’s talk about the fetish sites featured so heavily in the film. What was going on in there?

It’s called Dark-Fetish.net, and it’s a really, really graphic site. I signed up, I didn’t have any information about myself. Men, just because I said I was a woman, would message me asking if they could put lit cigarettes out on me. The thing is — I’m being sex positive about this — there are so many people that have fantasies and fetishes that don’t exist in the real world, and aren’t very moderate or very safe. Gil is not alone. It runs the gamut.

What about the supposed victims in the film?

We worked really hard to find the women that were affected by this case. I think the defense has always mantained that there were not victims in this case, and I really don’t believe that. I think that these women were real victims. As a feminist, it was difficult that they didn’t feel comfortable speaking in their own voice for the documentary. What we did is used the official court testimony from his wife to talk about how scared she was. But I would say that when you Google these women’s names, it’s not their life [that comes up], it’s his fantasies. I feel really bad that they’re so digitally tied to this forever. While it was, to a certain extent, a thought crime, it was a real crime when it came to these women.

Anyone walking down the street could have so many things going through their heads.

What I’ve always wanted to do is have a booth, and have people put their deepest, darkest fantasies in a box, anonymously, and you could read it. There’s a really great Reddit thread about people confessing their darkest, deepest things that they’re most ashamed of. I’m fascinated.

Do you think that because of this case, being prosecuted for your thoughts is a direction that we could be moving towards?

I think this case is the tip of the iceberg. The huge issues right now that have been going on for a couple years are terrorism cases. You go online, you visit a site that supports — in a way, in an opinion — jihad, [and] that’s traced back to your identity. If you’re looking at anything related to terrorism, it’s super dangerous for you online. Not even terrorism! Talking about Muslim ideas, Muslim lifestyles, even radicalism. I don’t think [this is where we’re headed] in the future, I think it’s now. Soon they’ll come for all the sexual deviants too. I think these are people that we are made uncomfortable by in our society, and so if there’s a way to push them away or throw them away, I think that’s what’ll happen. That’s why it was so incredible that the judge overturned the verdict, because that never happens. It was a jury conviction, but the judge spent nine months looking at it and said, “You know, I can’t do this.” I commend [the judge] for his bravery and I hope that it sets a precedent that you’re not going to be convicted for your thoughts.

The film closed with him saying that he was going to set up an online dating profile. Was the one that circulated online actually his?

Yes. Everybody thought it was so fake, because he had pictures of himself from the courthouse, in a suit. I said, “Gil, why did you use those photos?!” I thought that was a weird move. He asked my advice about it.

So, he’s going to trial again on May 12th. What’s that about?

The judge threw out the conviction, and then the prosecution appealed that throwaway, and so now there will be oral arguments to support the acquittal. The thing is, it’s crazy that the judge did that. The means our criminal justice system didn’t work.

It’s confusing, especially if you don’t know anything about the law, aside from “Law and Order,” that is.

There’s a “Law and Order” episode called “Thought Criminal” that’s sort of about this case. Gil watched it. I wonder what he feels about it.

“Thought Crimes” premieres on HBO tonight at 9 p.m. EST.

[Image courtesy of HBO]