Danish documentary director Sami Saïf has turned this footage into a 68-minute documentary. Deeply unsettling, it poses an important critique off how the media turn human tragedy into short entertaining news items.
Some found it disgusting, others just photogenic. Broadcasters from around the world have shown images of 21-year-old Ricardo Lopez committing suicide with a handgun. The images were part of a video diary that Ricardo Lopez made in the months preceding his suicide. On more than fifteen hours of tape he talks to the camera and among other things explains his obsession with Icelandic pop singer Björk, to whom he mailed an acid bomb. It was this bomb, which never would have worked anyway, that secured his notoriety in the tabloid press. Ricardo Lopez died in 1996 at 21.
Sami Saïf first saw Ricardo Lopez in a news clip on a local Danish television station. He was immediately angered by the way the news reporters were trying to portray Lopez as a homicidal maniac, not as a fellow human being. What Sami Saïf saw was not a freak, but a bewildered and sick young man, trying to sort out his confused thoughts by talking into his video camera. “By making this film I wanted to look beyond the tabloid sensationalism of television news,” explains Sami Saïf, “Television news programmes are never concerned about why people act the way Lopez does. Television news has a de-humanising effect in the way that we never learn the whole story about the persons involved. Instead, people are portrayed in stereotypes, and Lopez was cast in the role of homicidal maniac when his dramatic video recordings travelled the airwaves following his suicide. But even though Ricardo tries to act like a tough dangerous guy, like De Niro’s Taxi Driver, I immediately sensed that he was really not like this. There is a whole different side to his personality that the news journalists didn’t want to investigate because it didn’t fit in with their version of the story. That just sickened me to the point where I knew I had to make a movie about Lopez, if for no other purpose than to vindicate him as a human being.”
Sami Saïf’s film is deeply unsettling. The movie consists purely of material filmed by Lopez himself. He always video filmed himself alone in his house, often naked and late at night. In these sessions he talks about his relationship to his family, his fascination with Björk, his work as an pest exterminator and his obsession with suicide. He even shows in great detail how he experiments with acid in order to make a bomb that will scar Björks face. His life is miserable; he is lonely, overweight and tortures himself with needles. In effect the viewers are invited into the living room of a severely disturbed person who is gradually losing his sense of self and reality.
Thus the audience is submerged in a feeling of claustrophobia and a sense of lurking danger and disease. It all adds up to an experience with an intense degree of intimacy. The kind of intimacy that is normally absent from the many “reality shows” on television, with their fast paced action sequences and authoritative narrator who tells the audience what to think and feel, before they have a chance to do it in their own time. As a critique of modern television news and docu-soap, the film makes a strong point by showing that a “monster” like Ricardo Lopez is also an intelligent and sensitive young man – whom you’ll never discover if you’re only prepared to give him 30 seconds of your time, while channel surfing by remote control on a Monday night.
The world as a stage
With the so called “video revolution” where ordinary citizens take to the streets and provide material for television news and documentaries, there is obviously a tendency towards airing more and more sensational footage. Ordinary people are indeed closer to the events happening in their area than the professionals are. The results are recordings that are more intimate and more edgy than we have seen before.
The prime example of this is indeed the Ricardo Lopez video diary. The only person who could gather this material was himself, of course. Obviously, the ethical dilemma of filming a person blowing his own brains out with a gun would simply be too great! But interestingly enough this doesn’t stop television companies from showing the actual moment when Ricardo pulls the trigger. This is apparently fine, as long as he himself provides the recordings. Though this kind of material has spawned an ongoing ethical debate among filmmakers, a fundamental question still remains to be answered. Should we allow ourselves to use this type of material, and in what way? Needless to say, Ricardo Lopez’ suicide is never shown in Sami Saïf’s movie. Actually, the director has never even wanted to see the final part of Lopez’ diary himself. “I had other people mark the tape at the point where the suicide takes place, in order to be able to skip it in the editing room. I have no wish to see it, and no wish to include it in the film. By including it in the film I would merely have degraded Ricardo Lopez even more, and in fact I am trying to do just the opposite by making this film.”
Reality vs. video
The use of “authentic” recordings in documentaries is in many ways a sensitive issue which imposes new challenges on the filmmaker. The filmmaker might for example be given the material from outside sources that want to further their specific goal. The Ricardo Lopez tapes are a good example. Lopez’ 15-hour video diary is the property of the FBI, whose media department readily provides recordings like these to broadcasters. The overall aim is to show that crime doesn’t pay. That’s very nice of them of course, but the effect is that enraged television viewers call for more police, in the light of the anarchy they see taking place on their tv set, thus sustaining FBI budgets.
On another level lies the question of the personal involvement of the person who made the video recordings in the first place. In the case of Ricardo Lopez there is certainly a feeling that it was extremely important for him to film his last months and that he was very aware of the exposure this would bring. Sami Saïf comments, “It’s not like Ricardo Lopez was seeking fame as a primary goal, but he was very aware that his bomb and his suicide would make news headlines. On one occasion he even toys with the idea of postponing his suicide one week, because of an ongoing news story that had to fade before the public could pay enough attention to his story.”
Of course Ricardo Lopez did not kill himself because he owned a video camera; a gun took care of that! Lopez used the camera primarily as a tool for self-therapy and secondarily as a way of gaining fame. But either way his recordings portray a young man growing up wrong in a media-constructed reality. Filming himself building the bomb seems just as important as making the bomb itself. It is as though Ricardo Lopez needed to document his existence before he could put an end to it, and this is perhaps the most thought provoking aspect of Sami Saïf’s film.
The Video Diary of Ricardo Lopez was premiered at the Visions du Réel festival in Nyon in May, and will be broadcast later this year by DR (Danish Broadcasting Corporation) which co-financed the film.