Leviathan, the new experimental documentary from the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, provides a remarkably, um, immersive approach to its subject. Entirely free of talking heads, narration, or conventional exposition, the film—shot on a trawler off the coast of Massachusetts—plunges the viewer instead into the sights and sounds of industrial fishing.
Among Leviathan’s more startling footage is a sequence where the camera eye sloshes about among the guts and severed heads of fish on the ship’s “kill floor”. We seem to float free amongst the carnage, so much so that some online reports have it that the miniature GoPro sports cameras employed were actually attached to dead fish.
On the phone from Boston, Leviathan’s codirector (and head of the SEL), Lucien Castaing-Taylor, calls reports of the dead fish cam “an old wives’ tale”, one of several errors in reportage attending the much-buzzed film (which is coming to the Cinematheque on Friday [April 26] ). Other than a few shots where GoPros were attached to tripods or stable parts of the boat, the tiny cameras were appended to the fishermen themselves or were in the control of Castaing-Taylor and codirector Véréna Paravel, either held in their hands or at the end of a makeshift boom. “A basic two-by-two, or else two pieces of wood strapped together so we could hold it up to about 16 feet away from our arms’ length,” Castaing-Taylor explains.
For certain sequences, as when the camera spins and bobs with the seagulls in the boat’s wake, “one of us would have to hold onto the other who would then be holding onto the stick,” he continues. “And you couldn’t anticipate when the waves were going to come, or how big they were, and we couldn’t always resist the power of the water rushing by…so we were trying to control it, but the resulting image is a combination of intent and accident. We never knew exactly what was going to happen.”
The film has drawn comparisons to everything from Stan Brakhage to Georges Franju’s Blood of the Beasts, but as Paravel (who is also an anthropologist) puts it, Leviathan’s aesthetic really “came out of the experience, the fear, the engagement of being at sea in the middle of the Atlantic. About the only conceptual criteria that we had before we went to sea was to share the camera with the fishermen.” She adds that the fishermen were initially skeptical that they wouldn’t be represented as the bad guys in yet another eco-horror documentary. Fortunately, this was something the filmmakers had no interest in making.
“We wanted a different kind of experience and a different kind of film,” Castaing-Taylor says, “but we didn’t know what that would be like until we were out on the boat filming.” No attempt was made to “direct” the fishermen “or script stuff in that way”. But, Castaing-Taylor adds, “anything that intrigued us, that we thought could be rendered more interesting yet, or made more peculiar or unfamiliar yet, we pushed, and we filmed it again.”
The resulting experience is noisy, disorienting, challenging, and—thanks in no small part to remarkable sound design from Ernst Karel and Jacob Ribicoff—astonishingly trippy, begging to be seen in a heightened state of perception. It is also, from a cinephile’s point of view, immensely exciting, which has led to the film being selected by Canada’s Cinema Scope magazine as their number-one film for 2012. Leviathan also won the 2012 Los Angeles Film Critics Association’s Douglas Edwards Experimental/Independent Film/Video award and the New Vision award at the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival.
Has the reception exceeded the filmmakers’ expectations?
“I don’t think we had any expectations,” Paravel says, “But we were hoping the fishermen would like it.”