directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Verena Paravel
It probably says something about me that when I first heard about Leviathan from a friend who had seen it at a documentary festival, I was probably more excited to see it than any other new film this year. I missed my opportunity to see it at the San Francisco International Film Festival so was awaiting DVD. It also probably says something about me that when it did play one night at the Castro Theatre, I planned to go see it but ended up not getting around to it. I wound up seeing it on DVD, which was fine, but not optimal.
Leviathan is an immersive documentary from director Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel. Castaing-Taylor was behind the equally fascinating 2009 documentary Sweetgrass. The filmmakers are affiliated with the Sensory Ethnograpy Lab at Harvard University and though I know little of what that signifies, it has certainly brought forth two of the most amazing documentaries that I have ever seen.
Set on a fishing vessel, the film’s images were captured by clipping small cameras to several of the crew members, atop masts, attached to fishing nets beneath the water, removing an individual with a camera from aspects of the capturing of the images. Not that you know this entirely.
In fact, the film opens with darkness and hard to discern images following a biblical quote about the power of the sea. Like much of what transpires in the 90 or so minutes, there is little to tell the viewer outside the images and sounds themselves, exactly what one is witnessing, what significance it holds beyond its own presence. There is no voiceover nor text to direct the viewer and the cameras themselves, bob and rush with the movements of the boat on the ocean.
At times, the work is intensely gory. The crew hack up rays, disembowel nameless fish, slosh in blood, kick biological refuse out the ports. The machinery of the vessel is loud and dangerous-looking. The crew themselves appear occasionally, not as characters or personalities, but as men, working hard in the machinery of their chores.
There is one point in the film that isn’t quite so intense and immersive. There is a shot of the galley or kitchenette on the boat where one of the crew, looking-dog tired, is sort of watching a television that the camera cannot see. The show he is watching, oddly enough, is Deadliest Catch, the A&E television documentary about fishermen. The camera never captures the show except its soundtrack, a narrator’s voice telling what is happening to each of the men, detailing the squabbles, the personal dramas, and interviewing the “stars” of the show. Then there are commercials.
It’s a stark contrast to the film Leviathan and no doubt a commentary on the style of the production. It’s an interesting conceit. I guess interesting as well since it wasn’t something that they necessarily intended to capture but within the context of this sensoria of a film, it’s clear that there are documentaries and then there are documentaries.
Leviathan‘s greatest moments are visceral. The camera bobbing in on the surface of the water, below darkness and frothing liquid sounds, above to a sky loaded evermore with gulls and the cries of the birds, tracking the boat for its cast-offs. A shot of the trawl net rising from the deep and hundreds of sand dollars and starfish falling from the net and sinking like some ruinous magic through the depths back to the ocean floor. Fish heads, blankly staring, vaguely alive in the movement of the ship, sloshing and tilting, across the deck.
It’s hard to know entirely what one takes away from this film. Sadly, unlike Sweetgrass, there is no director’s commentary from which to glean. When this was shot, where it was shot, who the men are, what amount of fish or types of fish they capture or cast off, where the fish go, it’s all a mystery. The vivid and intensely visceral rush of sights and sounds is all there is. It’s tremendous, intense, and incredible.