'Leviathan': The Fishing Life, From 360 Degrees

By Pat Dowell

March 16, 2013

Leviathan is a documentary — and yet not a documentary. It's a near-wordless, almost abstract depiction of an 80-foot groundfishing boat heading out of New Bedford, Mass. The film's unusual structure and point of view has gotten rave reviews at festivals and from many critics.

Sometimes you don't know quite what you're seeing and listening to in Leviathan. You hear metal groaning and rasping, see fish, gloves and tools tossed about on a boat that's pitching and rolling in a roaring wind.

You see strange upside-down images of birds scrambling to get the chunks of dismembered fish that have been thrown off a deck awash in blood. You see creatures of the deep maimed and seemingly dazed by the killing pressure of the fishing nets as they roll out onto that deck. But there's no explanation — no captioning, no voice-over — to orient the viewer to the sights and sounds of industrial fishing.

Leviathan could be called an overwhelming sensory experience. And indeed, it's a product of Harvard University's Sensory Ethnography Lab, which encourages art that explores the sensory experience of being inside a particular culture. The director of the lab, Lucien Castaing-Taylor, directed Leviathan with Verena Paravel, also from the lab.

Castaing-Taylor comes from a family in the shipping business in Liverpool. His crisp British accent and precise descriptive style contrasts with Paravel's soft-spoken, French-accented English and her fervently poetic style of observation.

Her seagoing experience before Leviathan mainly involved watching the surface of the sea as she waited for hours in a small boat until her diver father would emerge from the deep.

The filmmakers' initial plan for Leviathan was more recognizable as a documentary — and was also land-bound.

"We started off filming on land," says Castaing-Taylor. "We were going to do a portrait of New Bedford, a sort of contrast or tension between its status as a kind of mythical city of Melville and Moby Dick and its onetime status as the whaling capital of the world. And then its much more hardscrabble history, and later life after the end of whaling and the decline of fishing and the decline of textile mills."

To that end, they shot hours and hours of film in the town and with fishermen working on land. But once they went to sea, they ditched all that.

"All that footage fell by the wayside, although we were really taken with some of it," says Castaing-Taylor. But "we realized that what was going on at sea was infinitely more interesting and unfamiliar and strange than anything we were filming on land."

Revealing the unfamiliar and the strange in working life, especially where animals are involved, was core to Sweetgrass, Castaing-Taylor's earlier film that focused on a Montana sheep-rancher and his herd. It was shot as much from the perspective of the sheep as of the humans.

'The Body Is The Eye'

Leviathan depicts fishermen at their constant repetitive work, shucking scallops, gutting fish, operating the huge steel links of the dragging net. But the filmmakers also seem to give a sensory impression of this world as it's experienced by the birds and the fish.

They put small cameras high up on booms for a few shots, but most of the movie consists of images created by cameras strapped onto human bodies. That means, Paravel says, that much of the footage was created without anyone looking through the viewfinder of the camera to see what was being shot. For her that was an anthropological imperative — to make the film "embodied," as though "the body is the eye, basically."

The filmmakers wore the cameras themselves because they wanted to get down on the deck with the fish, Paravel says.

"On the deck when the fish are coming [out of the net]," she says, "it's one of us crawling into the fish. Or when the camera is diving into the sea, it's one of us holding the other one over the rail and filming overboard with just a [camera attached to a] stick."

The little cameras recorded not only strange images, but also strange sounds, says Ernst Karel, who manages the Sensory Ethnography Lab and who specializes in on-location sound recording. Karel constructed the "sound composition" and mix of Leviathan from the audio Castaing-Taylor and Paravel recorded on the boat.

"The sound that was recorded at those moments when the camera is being pushed under water, is being held under water, and then is allowed to come out of the water for a breath," says Karel, "it really seems like a sort of 'machine-ic' gasp that comes out of it. Also, then, when the cameras get pushed back under the water, these deep drones and strange melodies almost started coming out, which were just ... uncanny."

Karel says that the little cameras captured sounds that had an unexpected affinity with the sense of the visuals. And it may have been serendipity: These cameras were not the original equipment the filmmakers intended to use for Leviathan.

Paravel says she and Castaing-Taylor started out with a larger camera that they lost at sea. They had to use their backup cameras, the tiny kind used for extreme sports, which gave the filmmakers unexpected results — like those uncanny sounds — and opportunities. The ethnographers decided they could involve the fishermen more in the making of the film because the men could wear the cameras as they worked.

"In a way those little cameras fit our purpose of doing what we call sometimes in anthropology" — and Paravel says the term,anthropologie partagé, first in French — "like a shared anthropology, where everybody would participate in the film. So those little cameras were a way to approach the body of the fisherman but also the fish."

Perspectives To 'Relativize The Human'

Sloshing down on the deck or in the waves at eye-level with the living and dying fish is one of many unusual aspects of Leviathan that has led seasoned critics to declare this an experimental film as much as a documentary. There's no narration or explanation. It's just you and the fish, gutted or swimming; you and the fishermen; you and the sea and the sky crowded with ravenous, diving, noisy birds.

In fact the credits of Leviathan list not only the fishermen, unnamed in the course of the film, but also each bird species, the moon ("Luna"), the sea ("Mare"), and every fish species. Castaing-Taylor says he and Paravel didn't set out to offer a fish's-eye view of industrial fishing, but something larger.

"We still wanted to create this multiplicity of perspectives that would relativize the human," he says. Perspectives that "would make the spectator rethink humanity's relationship to nature, in relationship to a plethora of other beings, of other animals, of other kind of inanimate objects — the elements, the earth, the sky, the sea, the boat, mechanization, fish, crustaceans, starfish — everything that is involved in the ecology of what's going on in industrial fishing today."

Paravel and Castaing-Taylor have incorporated some of the unused 250 hours of film shot for their 90-minute movie into a museum installation. It's been on display in Europe, and will come to America when they find venues big enough to let them create another space in which to rethink the interaction between humans and the world around us.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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