LEVIATHAN (2012) 87 minutes
Directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel
The directors of this film have made something entirely new and different. “LEVIATHAN” is refreshing and admirable, but it requires patience.
It’s a commercial fishing documentary, and one not flung all that far from the confines of the popular fishing reality show, Discovery Channel’s “Deadliest Catch.”
After watching the trailer, you’re ready for an even more abstract film than it turns out to be. Thankfully there are some semblances of human voices, some people, but do also be prepared for lots of sound: mostly the sloshing, crashing and bubbling of water.
“LEVIATHAN” is important for the genre because it opens a door, introduces another tool for more common to rely on. Point-of-view shots, almost surveillance shots, in this case, shot with small extreme sports cameras posted on fisherman themselves as well as other parts of the boat, can capture powerful images.
Images that communicate complete dramas on their own and provoke healthy contemplation. Will that gull ever get his ass over the wall and get into that fish bucket? If you focus on something like this long enough, it really does become its own story.
We attended a screening of “LEVIATHAN” and one of the directors, Castaing-Taylor, a Harvard professor of visual arts and anthropology, showed up on the big screen via Skype after the show to answer a few questions from the audience. He smoked cigarettes while took our questions. He seemed jaded about documentaries in general, even life itself. But he also seems like a hard worker who took pride in his work.
We asked — standing at the front of the theater looking up at a massive Skyped image of his face (come to think of it a huge image produced by a tiny camera – kind of like the documentary we had just watched) — how they decided on “Leviathan” as the title for the film. Castaing-Taylor said “LEVIATHAN” was just a working title that stuck.
Obviously it’s a reference to Moby Dick, but he said the real attempt of the film was to capture something of the ship and crews’s cosmic relevance, rather than just romanticizing fishermen and the fishing industry.
During much of film the ship is cast as a sea monster mindlessly gnashing its netted teeth across the Atlantic. Industrial fishing today is nothing but a pure and serious business. But in this doc, the fish, sea rays and shelled fish scooped on board are given screen time equal to that of the humans. That was another goal of the filmmakers.
“We knew we didn’t want to make a film with a big plot, we didn’t want to develop a narrative,” Castaing-Taylor said. “Just that humans are part of the seascape or the larger landscape. We didn’t want it to be about humans, it’s about the cosmos really. What weight to give humans was the biggest challenge.”
The most powerful scene comes about half way through the film. A fisherman takes a break in the kitchen. A small camera posted under a wall television catches him dosing off while chewing tobacco and watching an episode of “Deadliest Catch.” It’s us watching him watching himself. It makes you think about people, why we’re on this planet and how we behave here.
“SWEETGRASS” was Castaing-Taylor’s first documentary. It followed cowboys deep into Montana as they graze sheep one last time on the summer grass of the mountains, the old-fashioned way of feeding livestock. Ranching families don’t drive livestock into the mountains for food much anymore.
The best type of documentaries capture things that will be lost soon. “LEVIATHAN” is the fishing industry on its last legs. “There’s almost no cod left,” Castaing-Taylor said. “Fishermen are being killed off … It’s really a sad tale of humanity and the world,” he admitted. So, in essence, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel had an agenda, just like any other filmmakers trying to tell a story.
But the story of “LEVIATHAN,” although it requires patience, delivers a rich depth of information and a broad scope of messages. So what’s next for the director? “We’re working on a film shot entirely inside the human body.”