Hunting an Internet Killer

REVIEW: Netflix original docu-series Don’t F**k With Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer tells the tale of a publicity-hungry murderer who likes a good chase.

ATIKH RASHID

The enduring notoriety that the Zodiac killer — who terrorised Northern California in the late 1960s and early 1970s — continues to enjoy even after 50 years of the series of incidents, is not so much because of his gruesome crimes but that he turned them into a game. A game that he played with the police and public at large in full media glare.

The Zodiac killer, whose identity still remains unconfirmed, not only succeeded in forcing news dailies to publish his handwritten letters and cryptograms, but his goals of seeking meet with newer successes with every documentary, feature film or media article that appears on the scene, years after the original crimes.

About four decades later, in 2010, a 28-year-old from Toronto, Canada, sets out to achieve a similar goal, using the same methods, but via a different medium: the internet. Luka Magnotta’s criminal deeds and a hunt launched by a group of ‘internet nerds’ is the subject of the latest Netflix mini-series Don’t F**k With Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer. Directed by Mark Lewis, it was released on Netflix last week. In this three-episode docu-series, a failed show business aspirant Magnotta adopts ways and means which are eerily similar to the Zodiac killer. He acquires notoriety by committing gruesome crimes and using the internet to spread the word about his ruthless methods. He deliberately drops clues for those looking to hunt him down and makes the chase a story in itself.

The documentary starts in 2010, when Magnotta posts a video on the internet, which shows him killing two cats by suffocating them using a plastic bag and a vacuum cleaner. This attracts the attention of animal lovers who launch an online hunt to catch the cat-killer. Egged on by the attention, Magnotta proceeds to repeat similar atrocities on cats and posts them on the internet. While the angry internet-sleuths take this as a challenge, Magnota is aware of this ‘manhunt’ by a small group of internet nerds and he chides them and misleads them by dropping clues in each of his videos. The US-based amateur internet-sleuths — most prominently Deanna Thompson aka Baudi Moovan and John Green — who observe Magnotta’s behaviour pattern over a period and worry that he may soon graduate to more serious crimes. They also approach the Canadian police to warn about Magnotta but the latter doesn’t show much interest.

Deanna Thompson aka Baudi Moovan


In 2012, Magnotta takes the next logical step. He murders a young man, a 33-year-old computer engineering student from China, and releases the video of the gruesome act online. Magnotta then dismembered Lin’s body and mails his severed feet and hands to the headquarters of Canada’s Conservative and Liberal Parties — wrapped in silk paper with suggestive poems written on the inner side. At this stage, the police get involved and the case then turns into a full-fledged international manhunt as Magnotta flees from Toranto to Montreal, Paris and finally to Germany.

Use of social media platforms including Facebook, YouTube and portals in the deep web are an inalienable part of Magnotta’s crime design. He carefully choreographs his entry into the scene by putting videos pertaining to cruelty to cats — thus violating the ‘Rule Zero’ of the internet that ‘You don’t mess with the cats’.

Murderer Luka Magnotta’s story is also a tale of what happens when a criminal mind obsessed with gaining fame meets cinephilia. As is revealed in the mini-series, Magnotta, a failed actor-model, draws his inspiration for the crimes depicted in movies. His choices of aliases, profile pictures for fake social media accounts as well as cities where he commits the gruesome crimes, come from some of the most well-known Hollywood crime films, such as Basic Instinct (1992), American Psycho (2000) and Catch Me If You Can (2002).

In the film, Magnotta comes across as a “narcist extraordinaire”, who yearns for Jack the Ripper-level attention of the public and the media. In this pursuit, years before he embarks on the cat-killing misadventure, he creates fake rumours about him dating a female serial killer and fools newspapers into publishing the stories of his denials. Later, when he makes the ‘snuff videos’ they are full of homages to other serial killers — historical or fictional — either through visuals or references.

The success of Don’t F**k With Cats lies in turning this story of a cumbersome online pursuit into a compelling, binge-worthy thriller. The three-hour, mini-series has the energy and tension of a gritty high-octane action thriller — although most of the ‘chase’ happens within the bedrooms of Baudi and Green. Such a story, with a lot of information and little movement, holds the risk of being boring. However, The Cats… is also a triumph for the audio-visual medium and cinematic language as the director succeeds in making static elements such as still pictures, computer screens, web-pages become, in a way, mobile on the screen to complement the fast-paced plot.The documentary builds interest and manages to keep it at a high level as the protagonists engage in tedious work of analysing videos posted by Magnotta, frame by frame, checking the digital footprint left by him and even geographical peculiarities of the household items visible in the videos.

Although the film is about violent crimes, the gore is largely omitted. This has been achieved by making the characters describe the videos, instead of the showing them directly to the audience.

Towards the end, the mini-series poses a question to its protagonists: did the internet-sleuths who chased Magnotta from his first video until the day he was finally nabbed, feed his narcissism to the point that he had to go forward and perform one outrageous act after another? Perhaps they did. But have we, as viewers, who are intrigued, disgusted, impressed, outraged or shocked with Magnotta’s deeds, fallen for his design? Every click on the ‘play button’ must be bringing a smile to Magnotta’s face as he counts his years in prison.

A long journey

Upcoming Marathi biopic Anandi Gopal traces the life of India’s first female doctor Anandibai Joshee, her whimsical husband and their journey together

Andandee’s picture from Caroline Healy Dall book ‘The Life of D r. Anandabai Joshee: A Kinswoman of the Pundita Ramabai’

IN 1878, when Anandibai Joshee was 14, she gave birth to her first and only child. The baby lived for 10 days. This was five years before her departure for New York to study medicine, the first Indian woman to do so, at Woman’s Medical College in Pennsylvania. According to Caroline Healy Dall, who wrote her biography, the death of the infant sowed the seed for her wanting to become a doctor.

“A child’s death does its father no harm. But the mother doesn’t want it to die,” she wrote to a friend. Anandi had married Gopal Joshee when she was nine, left for USA when she was 18, and finished medical studies at 21. She died a year later in Pune at the age of 22.

Healing Touch A photograph of Anandibai Joshee
The story of this brief but extraordinary life, the story of Anandi and her “eccentric” husband who went against the family, society and financial pressures to take the banned journey to “Christian land” and achieve what the couple desperately wanted, has attracted the attention of storytellers. There are two biographies, including Healy Dall’s that was published two years after Anandi’s death in 1886, a novel and a play depicting fictionalised versions of her journey. Now, the story will make its silver screen debut with Sameer Vidwans’ directorial venture, Anandi Gopal.

The Marathi film, which stars child actor Bhagyashree Milind as Anandibai and Lalit Prabhakar as Gopalrao Joshee, covers the story from their marriage, the ups and downs in their journey in India and Anandi’s travel to the US and her studies at the medical college.

A still from Sameer Vidwans’ film Anandi Gopal

Vidwans says that the short life that Anandibai lived was full of events and drama even before she left for the US. Gopal worked in the postal department and was transferred often; hence the couple had to travel and shift towns several times. She was born in Pune, grew up in Kalyan and then shifted to Kolhapur after her marriage. The couple then lived in various cities including Alibaug, Kutch, Serampore and Calcutta. In each of these cities, they faced many troubles as Gopal insisted that his wife is educated.

“I was very interested in the way their relationship changed over the years. When they got married, he became her parent, looking after her and educating her. As she grew into a young woman, they became lovers, and with her education and growth as a person, they bonded as friends. I have tried to portray this delicate equation between them,” said Vidwans, who started his career as a theater director and later shifted to cinema after doing a course in screenwriting from Film and Television Institute of India. He’s known for romantic comedies such as Time Please (2013) and Double Seat (2015).

He says that finding locations that would suit the 19th century setting of the film required a lot of research and legwork. The team also had to research other aspects such as language as well as songs, clothing and especially, the lighting as the film is set in pre-electricity period when houses were lit with oil lamps.

“We shot the film at 10-12 different locations in India. The US scenes were taken in Georgia. Considering that the Marathi used at that time was very different to today’s, we decided to have a mix of the two so as to avoid a disconnect with the modern audiences,” said Vidwans.

While it’s quite imaginable the kind of struggle that Anandi and Gopal faced while taking the bold step, Vidwans said that he considered that conveying the “inner struggle” of the two while fighting the external wo

Healing Touch Director Sameer Vidwans
rld as an important challenge for the film.

“It’s true that she died at the cusp of starting her career for which she and her husband fought an obsessive battle. But despite her young death, she inspired many other woman to take up the profession such as Rukhmabai who became a doctor in 1894,” said Vidwans.

Colour of patriarchy

Hellaro is a celebration of colour and cause. It’s enjoyable if you can ignore the shortcomings.

The film’s most celebrated part — its meticulously choreographed dance sequences — is also the most problematic one.

ATIKH RASHID

FOLKTALES provide good fodder for cinema. The tales have an inherent strength which has helped them survive for centuries. They also do not have a claimant author clinging to the content and commanding ownership. In the Indian context, where filmmakers have to ensure that the film includes certain ‘must-haves’, which will enable it a commercial life, the folktales also provide a flexibility in adaptation that would otherwise be difficult to secure in case of a celebrated work of literature.

Hellaro, directed by Abhishek Shah, which has brought laurels for Gujarati cinema by winning the industry’s first ever Golden Lotus at National Film Awards, is a folktale adaptation which tries to tick all the right boxes. This is something that has helped the film’s first-time director secure rave reviews, two national awards as well as a special mention at the recently concluded International Film Festival of India (IFFI).

Hellaro, which in Gujarati means ‘a strong gust of wind’, takes its plot from a popular folktale from a small and forgotten region of Gujarat — the sandy and solitary Prathand in the desert of Kutch, close to the frontier with Pakistan — and turns into a cinematic feast with vibrant visuals and overtly melodramatic ebbs and flows. In the process, however, the folktale that the film draws its story from is retained only in its
bare frame.

The plot follows a group of upper-caste women, who are living in an extremely patriarchal and suppressive system, and are barred from doing garba — the Gujarati folk dance — owing to a superstition that it would anger the village deity, who ironically is female. As the women suffer this injustice silently, enters a young, semi-educated and rebellious girl Manjari (played by Shraddha Dangar) after she is married into the village. During the daily ritual of fetching water from a far-off pond, the women discover a wayward, low-caste drummer (convincingly played by Jayesh More) who agrees to play for them at Manjari’s request. Although reluctant initially, the women join the dance and this becomes their secret routine during the daily trip to fetch water. As the crime is discovered and punishment is suffered, the women manage to retain their right to garba, not because of a change of heart on the part of men but as it’s discovered in the climax of the film that as women dance the goddess ‘blesses’ the village with rains.

The plot of the folktale, Vrajvani No Dholi (Vrajvani’s Drummer), is considerably different. Here, a handsome but ‘low-caste’ drummer walks into a village and starts beating his drum in the square. The sound is so enchanting and irresistible that women drop their chores, gather around the drummer and start dancing. The men find nothing wrong in this until a jealous priest turns one of the men against the dholi, pointing to his caste. The man kills the drummer, and as the beats stop, the women smack their heads with their bangles and kill themselves as if to atone the sin.

The film plays down the caste aspect of the story and reduces it to a sub-plot. Instead writer-director Shah invents the theme of women’s rebellion against patriarchy and suppression as the rallying point of the film. For this purpose it has to introduce the ban on garba, although, in the folktale, there’s no embargo on the dancing of women. This new plot works fine too — the changes can be ascribed to Shah being, confessedly, a ‘feminist’. But the apparent success of the screenplay, the bland characterisation dampens all the fun that the plot holds promise for. Bhaglo is a man with sympathy for women’s cause because of his regular trips to the city. Like most men in the village, Manjari’s husband is an incorrigible misogynist, who believes in violating his wife than loving her.

Such characterisation and overt melodrama takes the film closer to the aesthetics of the one strand of the Indian art-house cinema of ’70s and ’80s. One is reminded of Ketan Mehta’s Mircha Masala (1987) which, although doesn’t specify its setting, is based in the same desert of Kutch. In fact, the setting, structure and sartorial choices of its inhabitants, the ritual of fetching water from a far-off water body, hints that it’s the same cinematic village that
we have seen in Mehta’s film.

The film’s most celebrated part — its meticulously choreographed dance sequences — is also the most problematic one. The sequences designed by the celebrated Gujarati choreographers Arsh and Sameer Tanna, who have previously worked for Bollywood blockbusters Ram Leela (2013) and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999) — reduce the women’s brief interlude from the repression into a spectacle for the viewer. The group wears colourful chania-cholis and does synchronised dancing. It is done in a way that it is agreeable to the camera, to the extent that the vessels dropped by women in the sand arrange themselves in symmetric form at the edge of the frame. It makes one wonder if the women are dancing for their freedom from patriarchy or to the enslavement of the camera.

That said, the praise and recognition that the film has received is likely to reinvigorate the Gujarati film industry. What has been achieved by the team, in a respectable but small budget of Rs 2.5 crore, is no small feat. Hellaro is a celebration of colour and cause, and it’s an enjoyable film if you are ready to ignore its many shortcomings.