In Review: Leviathan

by Martyn Conterio on 28/11/2013


Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, both Harvard anthropologists involved in the university’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, whose remit is to create ‘a sensory experience of being inside a particular culture’, stepped aboard an American trawler armed with GoPro digital cameras to record, collect, edit and present a documentary like no other.

Leviathan is a work of considerable mood and majesty. The first thing you’ll notice is the incredible sound design: all atonal drones, metallic melodies and peculiar pitches that never really let up. Although as a viewer you’re firmly seated in the comfy dark confines of the auditorium, you’ll definitely need your sea legs for this one. The use of extreme close-ups, unusual and sometimes unnerving angles and perspectives, sudden cutting and audio is utterly – and superbly – disorientating.

The narrative structure, if it can be called that, is both cyclical and monotonous. This is, after all, a floating factory whose remit is to turn fish into profit, and not some romantic tale of seafaring. The macho ‘cowboys on the Bering Sea’ bravado of The Deadliest Catch is entirely absent save for an audio clip from a TV set as the trawler’s captain struggles to stay awake during a break from the wheelhouse. The crew, here, are not identified beyond their roles as figures on the boat doing various jobs. Yet their weathered skin and the scars tell a thousand stories of hard graft. This is the world of commercial fishing. Seasoned workers and greenhorns dredge up, gut, chop, wash and pack away the prized fish in ice crates, come rain or shine. Then they put the nets and pots back in and start the process all over again. Those critters caught in the nets that are undesirable on our dinner plates or have little-to-no value are kicked overboard and back into the deep, no doubt to be picked apart by opportunistic creatures below. Circle of life innit.

A lot of the film is purely mesmerising. The bough of a ship rising and falling on the crest of each wave. A stream of starfish rushing towards a submerged camera (also being dragged along in motion). A bulging net appearing out of the watery gloom like a sea monster intent on wrecking the vessel up top. Yet the little, even quirky, moments resonant just as loud: dead fish sloshing around in a crate like some unappetising peasant stew; two crew members lost in repetitive action (opening clam shells) until startled by an alarm bell, or a gull attempting to climb over a pesky obstacle to get at an all-you-can-eat buffet of leftover innards and body parts.

Martyn has awarded Leviathan five Torches of Truth

5 torches

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