Leviathan is an experimental documentary that experiments more than it documents. Shot aboard a commercial fishing boat in the North Atlantic, the only thing you’ll learn about commercial fishing is that it’s a wet and ugly endeavour. Filmmaker/ Harvard anthropology professor Lucien Castaing-Taylor and co-director Véréna Paravel are contributing to a tradition of ethnographic filmmaking that concerns itself more with observation and ways of seeing than it does with telling a story.
Shot with a dozen cameras that were passed between fishermen and filmmakers as well as tethered to different parts of the boat, the effect created is a disembodied camera that often feels aimless. The camera used is the compact “GoPro”, known more for its durability and use in extreme sports than the quality of the image it captures. Consequently Leviathan is not a very pretty film, nor does it try to be. Most of it is shot while they work on at night, with fluorescent lights creating a harsh contrast with the darkness, making the already grisly images even less pleasing to look at. With most shots lingering for several minutes, it sometimes looks like footage you see when someone forgets to turn the camera off… or edit.
Despite feeling like the filmmakers are experimenting with your patience at times, if you allow yourself to be immersed in the film there are some truly mesmerizing moments. Most of these are created by shots where the camera has been tethered outside the boat, crashing in and out of the waves as sound an image oscillate between the muted world underwater and the avian-filled sky above.
Even though a lot of it feels happenstance, we know that too much time, effort, money and expertise has gone into bringing this project to theatres for that to be the case. Drifting between hypnotic and trying, whether you love it or hate it, Leviathan becomes a visceral experience. It’s not surprising that it has already divided audiences; most viewers probably don’t have a desire to know what it’s like to lie in a bloody puddle of fish heads for five minutes. At times you can almost smell the fish guts and you feel like your fingers should be pruned by the end of it. One of the only breaks we get from the boat’s cold, wet exterior is a shot of a fisherman nodding off in the break room, at about an hour in this shot was likely included as a playful mirroring of less enthused audience members whom the film may be losing at this point.
As frustrating and tedious as watching films like this can be, the reward really comes when you’re forced to think about it afterwards. While I can’t honestly say I enjoyed the act of watching it, films like this force you to think about the filmmaker’s unorthodox choices and intentions as you sit there wondering “why would somebody do this to me?” While it’s easier to tell yourself there’s nothing to get rather than trying to get it, analyzing a film like this is often a far more engaging and satisfying activity than following the plot of a narrative. Some viewers are certainly better equipped to do this, such as this New York Times author whose article on the film gave me far more pleasure and insight on the process than the film itself. Even those who don’t wish to discover a deeper meaning that may or may not be present in these images may still appreciate the film’s emphasis on organic observation and its manipulation of cinematic form (or lack thereof).