Directors: Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Verena Paravel
Running time: 87 mins
Release date: November 29
The worlds of cinema, art and academia all merge in Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s incomparable Leviathan, a documentary about the fishing industry in Bedford, New England. The film is a product of Harvard University’s Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL), which uses unorthodox but specific techniques in an effort to convey ‘the real’ by means of an immersive cinematic experience.
Leviathan was shot about 200 miles off the coast, the directors making six trips on a fishing vessel, each of which lasted two weeks. On-screen we witness all aspects of the process the fishermen undergo – hauling the catch on board, cutting the heads off the fish, gutting other fish, cleaning shells, hosing out what they choose to keep and putting it in baskets to be stowed.
Extensive use is made of Go Pro cameras – light, durable recorders which are often used in adventure sports. And they are everywhere – affixed to the fishermen and directors, thrown in with the catch, attached to poles which are lowered into the ocean. This is all done, according to Paravel, in order to ‘distribute the authorship’. And she means it too — the various species of fish and birds that appear are even listed in the credits.
There is a method to Paravel and Castaing-Taylor’s madness. They do manage to ensure that there is a multiplicity of perspectives, and in doing this they bring the audiovisual to the fore — a key aspect of SEL’s modus operandi. The verbal is relegated to the background, so Leviathan is pretty much wordless. There is little talk between the fishermen and no narrative voice; instead we get the whirring of machinery, the eerie sounds of the ocean, the squawking of the seagulls and an up-close look at the dead eyes of all manner of fish.
New Bedford was once the whaling capital of the world, and provided the inspiration for the novel Moby Dick. But the 21st century reality of the fishing industry there is at odds with its mythic status. Although the fishermen take great risks going out to sea, they cannot be classed as hunters. Technology ensures they have complete mastery over their catch, and are left with medial tasks such as operating machinery and cleaning out the fish with a hose before separating them. Most look fatigued and don’t appear to derive much satisfaction from what they are doing.
What to make of it all then? Leviathan does indeed provide an immersive — and discombobulating — viewing experience like no other. Most of it is shot in the dark of night, the sounds can be uncomfortably invasive and the visuals appropriately out of focus. Its effects have been hailed as hallucinatory in certain quarters, although it also prompted walkouts at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland. As for directors Paravel and Castaing-Taylor, they claim that they still aren’t able to say what exactly the film is about.
So, by all means go and see it if you will. Just don’t say that you weren’t warned.