Director: Tim Leyendekker
Stars: Eelco Smits, Trudi Klever, Koen Van Kaam
In the Dutch city of Groningen in 2007, three men knowingly drugged a number of male sexual partners and injected them with their own HIV-infected blood. The case became a national scandal and now, some years later, Tim Leyendekker presents a singular re-framing of the events, splicing elements of standard documentary with dramatic reconstruction, and presenting newly filmed interviews in a series of stylistically diverse vignettes.
The act itself is so stunningly evil that the need for salacious fanfare is voided out. Leyendekker understands this and pulls away from the incendiary tactics that make up so much of the current crop of popular true-crime docs. Feast is disarmingly cold and fractured; indeed it’s very subject is coaxed out of obscurity. The film begins with the first in a series of eerie tableaux in which anonymous men lie prone in hyper-lit locales, like the victims in Gregory Crewdson photographs.
Then, in a sustained shot that lasts minutes, a prim officer of some unknown constabulary unboxes evidence seized in connection with the crime to the sound of paparazzi camera snaps. It looks as though she is judiciously framing a high street shop window display, and her decisions over where to place CDs, condoms and crisp packets becomes a fascinating process in itself. Ten minutes in and context is tantalisingly elusive. This approach is prefigured in the film’s opening titles and mirrored in an extended interview section later on. Here Leyendekker presents extreme close-ups of bodies in contact; presumably pornographic but blown-up so as to obliterate meaning.
It’s all in service of presenting the case and events in a way that defies easy consumption, just as drawing understanding of the crime often feels impossible. While the subject is grimly fascinating, it means that form often trumps substance. An interview with one of the perpetrators – now released from prison – grapples with tough subjects; responsibility; guilt; motivation. It’s galling to hear the man call his actions “an act of love”. But is this real or another level of performance? By sequencing this extended conversation between more overtly dramatised scenes in police holding, etc, we’re left to question veracity.
Another interview also stands out, in which Leyendekker questions a virologist on the nature of pathogens, and her outlook on the nature of viruses is almost Cronenbergian, approaching admiration. She talks of contagions working in tandem with their host organisms, and the romanticism of her description rings icily with the perpetrator’s own calmly articulated psychopathology.
Truth does trump fiction. The more overtly docudrama sequences aren’t nearly as gripping or inherently fascinating as the interviews and confessionals (if these are fabricated then the performances are magnificent). Three men under observation exchanging philosophical views tests patience, and only adds to the picture by making us question the surrounding vignettes. Feast is a strange beast; wildly inconsistent but, for long stretches, grimly riveting. There’s a detached spaciousness to the film. It feels like an incongruous artefact; a collage of art pieces showcased together in clinical exhibition, some elements connecting more insistently than others.
If nothing else, Feast is proof positive that there is still room for ingenuity and innovation in the documentary form. So long as the act of creating the new doesn’t eclipse or obfuscate the goal of presenting the truth.