Review: ‘Leviathan’

[mks_dropcap style=”square” size=”52″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#dd0b0b”]T[/mks_dropcap]here’s a deep, sublime beauty to the experimental film Leviathan (2012), a documentary shot on board a large fishing trawler plying the murky seas off the coast of New Bedford, Connecticut. But ‘documentary’, at least in the sense we’re used to, isn’t the best term to describe this dreamy and entirely immersive work that looks and feels more like an art installation at a contemporary art gallery.

Let’s just call it the latest art project by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, an abstract observation that ably manages to walk the thin line between gratuitous self-indulgence and creative restraint.

Using a dozen waterproof GoPro cameras that can at one moment skim the surface of inky, violent waters and swoop up to bird’s eye view the next, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel, who work at the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard, document a night and day in the life of workers on a commercial fishing boat through a collage of vivid and sometimes haunting scenes that neither trivialize nor judge. It’s simply raw and deliberate examination captured on cameras strapped to the filmmaker’s heads. It’s enthralling to be sure, but demanding of some patience as well. For the first twenty-odd minutes, you’re not even sure what it is you’re looking at or where it’s going. But if you give it time, your patience will be rewarded.

On the surface and below, the film is as hellish as its title, lifted from the Book of Job, suggests, an uncompromising and oftentimes gruesome montage of visual and aural stimulation that lays bear the blood and guts of the fishing industry. Most likely, it’s unlike anything you’ve seen before.

There are long shots of gasping bug-eyed fish entangled in automated nets that look like super-sized chainmail. Sliced fish heads slowly waltz across the rolling deck until the ankle deep streams of blood push them back into the sea. In one particularly dramatic scene two workers slice the wings off of skates with calculated, synchronized efficiency. In another are intimate close-ups of a fisherman’s eyes, nose, cheeks, and brow, of the tattoo of a large-breasted mermaid on his strong, fat arm. When it’s not dark, wet, windy and raining, it’s daylight, wet and, windy and (mostly) raining.

What’s it about? The toll that the industry takes on the oceans and the workers is one possibility, but we never really know. And maybe that’s the point. Conventional documentaries have trained us to listen to interpretation, but here we’re not told a thing. There’s not a word of dialogue or narration in the film; the only words you hear are muddled beyond recognition by other sounds and noises. Here is the raw footage, the filmmakers seem to be saying, now draw your own conclusions.

The style’s not for everyone. Almost two dozen people walked out in the first 30 minutes, some scratching and shaking their heads. The editing could have been tighter. Some scenes begged, screamed for cutaways. Decide for yourself, beginning with the trailer below.

Screened at the 24th Ljubljana International Film Festival, 17-Nov-2013.
More Stories
Recuerdo Profundo by Jimenez Deredia
Scab Cab Ride