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“Leviathan”: Human Place in the Animal Hierarchy
Today, when the cinema industry is one of the most developed in diversity and high-tech solutions, it is not easy to surprise and inspire the contemporary audience. The genres transform and evolve so that the distinctions and boarders eliminate and new subgenres appear. The contemporary directors try new methods and approaches to find fresh ideas in order to conquer love and respect of the curmudgeonly and high-fed spectator. One of the bright examples of the directors’ chase after the new view of life in cinema is “Leviathan”, the result of the work of two talented people whose endeavors were noticed by the Michael Powell Award at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and the Experimental/Independent Film/Video Award at the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards. Among the film’s other awards, there are 14 wins and 13 nominations – the impressive result for the experimental work.
“Leviathan” is an American documentary film shot in 2012. It represents the experimental work of the directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel concerning the fishing industry in North America. It was first shown for the public at Locarno Film Festival and was positively received. The film was released in different countries throughout 2012 and 2014. The audience enjoyed the watching of the movie on the normal widescreen with side masking pulled in for 1.85:1 aspect (theatrical) ratio. The film’s box office in the USA made $1 092 800 – the result worth respect and admiration if talking about the newcomers in the industry of the documentaries.
The movie is a part of a big 4-parts project called “Canst Thou Draw out Leviathan with an Hook?” concerning the depiction of the oceanic world and industrial fishing by different methods. The name of the project is the phrase from the Bible, namely the Book of Job. The project is aimed to lack the traditional romanticism and sentimentalism and to show the reality as it is. It was decided to start the project with the movie theatres, namely the screening of “Leviathan”. The film is a part of the complicated device of conveying the concept of the authors to the audience.
What makes this movie stand aside its colleagues on the same topic and of the same genre is its non-traditional narrative. 87 minutes does “Leviathan” keep the audience on the edge of its seats with no dialogues and legible pictures. The whole movie is a speechless reflection on the place and role of a human being in nature. The directors’ choice fell upon the ocean and the fishermen in their cooperation, and though the audience is already terrified at what it sees, it is obvious that the movie shows only a part of human demolitions and predator-like resource consuming. The scenes are voiceless and so is the audience in its state of shock.
The movie opens with an epigraph from the Book of Job: “He maketh the deep to boil like a pot: he maketh the sea like a pot of ointment. He maketh a path to shine after him; one would think the deep to be hoary. Upon earth there is not his like, who is made without fear” (Job 41:31-33). Like the Old Testament, the first image of the film (as well as the whole film) promise to be dark and gloomy where the human and the nature are fighting for supremacy.
The name of the documentary is the reference to the large sea monster from the Old Testament which is represented in the movie by a fishing ship as a symbol of the mass consumption. “Leviathan’s” terrifying effect is got by the filmmakers with the help of the shape, the color and the sound. The ship leaves behind the remains of the sea creatures and is accompanied by horrible sounds just like a monster. Unlike the Bible passage where the battle takes place between Leviathan and the man, in the movie the two exchanged their roles and names – Leviathan is a man who attacks, rips life from the sea and destroys it.
The reference to Bible was chosen also for another reason – the sea is the space where the temporality erases and one is brought back to his origins. Swallowing and dissolving, the sea puts a human somewhere between life and death where myths and spirits appear. The directors’ idea was to convey this unique atmosphere of mystery which could elicit individual associations for every spectator whether it is the sea serpent, the dragon, or even Satan. “Leviathan” is art, and art’s mission is to make people think and pass the creation through oneself.
There is no definite plot in “Leviathan” – the directors propose their audience some glimpses of the typical work day (or, it is better to say dawn) of the fishermen aboard a vessel who are untangling the huge chains, emptying the large nets full of fish and calvering different kinds of sea inhabitants. The spectator feels like an invisible creature participating and watching the process – he can do it wherever he wants: aboard, above and below the water, even on the level of the flying seagulls. He experiences the sights and the sounds without any voice-over (there are some dialogues of the crew mates but they are not essentially important). The randomly oriented camera angles let the spectator give the whole process once over.
Speaking of the parental advisory, “Leviathan” contains frightening and intense graphic scenes with the fish slaughtered thus accompanied by blood and entrails. The directors intended to make the scenes of the dying fish long so the spectator must be ready to experience the disgust of the bloody water and the bloated fish.
Anthropologists by profession, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel have no cinema education and “Leviathan” is basically their third time to touch the camera. Still, they are both related directly to the sea: Lucien is a son of a shipbuilder who spent his childhood on the decks of ships in Liverpool, while Véréna is a daughter of the underwater hunter. So the both filmmakers literally feel the sea.
“Leviathan” was born in the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard University, an experimental laboratory where the directors work with photography, sound and video. Though the filmmakers started their shooting on land, namely in New Bedford, the world capital of whaling, they gave it up when happened to find themselves at sea. The shot material was nothing compared to what they saw on the groundfishing boat.
Before starting the shooting, the filmmakers were proposed to make a more commercial film involving animal and human rights, a film able to make the audience cry and raise money. But it was not what they were looking for, they wanted something non-anthropocentric, something different and it had to be exactly about fishing.
At the beginning of the shooting of “Leviathan”, the directors used a large camera but they eventually lost it at the sea. So they decided to try the waterproof GoPro cameras whose small size and cinematic quality made the process easier and more effective though the directors say to be technophobes with no good knowledge of cameras. The opportunities and the results turned out to be unexpected, and it was then decided to involve the fishermen more in the process by putting the cameras on their bodies. The filmmakers aimed to create the documentary from the human perspective, and the GoPro cameras’ independence in usage made it possible – the cameras were let to do their work perfectly.
Though it is not important in the context of the movie, the directors chose the North Atlantic Ocean for shooting. This most fruitful fishing ground will stand for “the eternal sea” where the fishing trawler will do its destroying work. The seamen in the role of themselves are in the process of their brutal physical labor but the embodied camera, namely the audience, is watching the process of annihilation with blood coloring the dark sea into red.
Unlike other movies of the same genre, “Leviathan” has neither logic clarity, nor three-act structure. The storyteller here is the sea with its crashing waves; the director is the nature itself. Though every image is controlled somehow, the audience has a feeling that there must be a third director, not human. The bizarre slur of pictures and sounds produces thoughtful but still unclear and understated depictions. The long takes of the trivial reality of the fishermen stun and consciously exhaust the audience. It seems to the spectator that he feels the image before he sees it – the effect the filmmakers aimed to get.
Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel intended to make the film fluid as long as possible. Due to the absence of the narrative plan, they were free in actions – the discussion was only about where to start and where to end. But when the video footage was ready, the process of editing went easily and quickly.
Though “Leviathan” is wordless, many metaphors are so obvious, they don’t need any comments. One of them is the scene with the captain watching the Discovery Channel and eventually falling asleep. The attentive spectator might notice the directors’ derision of the representation of the work at sea by the popular media. Though the film’s objective is to show and depict, sometimes it seems the picture is screaming.
“Leviathan’s” last shot is the image of seagulls transforming into the darkness of the ocean – the directors wished the movie to end with the sea features. The cold picture reminds of an apocalyptic vision of the mix of sea and sky.
The ending of the movie is marked with the dedication to lives that were lost at sea (but the attentive spectator might also notice several animals included into the dedication – their names are put in the scientific format). The bottom of the sea is a big cemetery with thousands of shipwrecks and bodies of people who were injured or fell overboard. Even while shooting of “Leviathan”, a couple of people died. The job is very dangerous, so the directors decided to pay the audience’s attention to it. The dedication adds the human element to the movie about nature, namely its fragile position in the nature hierarchy. The dedication is connected with “Moby Dick” as well because New Bedford, Massachusetts, is the city where Melville first went in a whaling boat.
“Leviathan” may cause impatience with many spectators – they may get tiresome and bored; it may not be easy to watch the long shots of the fishing routine. But it would be still a meditative experience for the open-minded cinema lovers and those who enjoy new methods and devices in cinematography. This movie may be more of an expressionist art installation rather than a documentary – anyway all the possible boundaries are erased here. No matter what the spectator’s reaction to “Leviathan” is, the film’s odd aggressive power cannot leave him indifferent. The audiovisual experience melts together the reality and the art, and there is no place for the narrative left – only senses and imagination.
“Leviathan” explores the sensory experience of being inside the process of industrial fishing. The fishermen’s constant repetitive work is mixed with the sensory impression introduced by the view of the birds and the fish. The scientific and technological progress represented by the trawler testifies of the human blind overconsumption which cannot but worry those who care about the future of the planet. The directors wanted the audience to see from the inside the human relationship to nature including all its elements, to rethink the interaction between the humans and the world around us. The movie provokes its audience to actually think of what is happening and what it means. As a piece of art, “Leviathan” shows the evidence with the help of artistic devices, and it is up to the audience to perceive it and make conclusions about the context.
The directors of the movie found their individual way of conveying the reality thus revealing the world without any expectations. Their next movie, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel plan to make radically different and full of new ideas. It might be born out of experience of the directors with the world, and its shooting will again have no scripts.
ANDERSON, MELISSA. “"Steel Yourself for Leviathan, A Watery Knockout”. The Village Voice (2013).
HOWELL, PETER. “"Leviathan a fish-eye view aboard a commercial trawler: review”. Toronto Star (2013).
SCOTT, A.O. “"The Merger of Academia and Art House: Harvard Filmmakers’ Messy World”. The New York Times (2012).
ZACHAREK, STEPHANIE. “'Leviathan': Of Fish And Men, Without Chats”. National Public Radio (2013).
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