Opening in selected UK cinemas this week, Leviathan is an extraordinary, experiential feature directed by Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, filmmaking anthropologists based in the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard University. Shot during several expeditions off the coast of New Bedford, Massachusetts aboard the trawler Athena, it’s not so much a documentary about commercial fishing – there’s no narration, precious little dialogue – than an egalitarian document of a dangerous ecosystem in which multiple perspectives – fish, fowl, the crew, their vessel – are presented from every conceivable angle using lightweight personal HD cameras.
Edited to situate the viewer at the briny heart of this decontextualized odyssey, it’s alternately hypnotic and horrifying. Sky-gazing long takes jump-cut into brutally matter-of-fact depictions of the men’s repetitive work: a storm-lashed cycle of netting, hacking and eviscerating their quarry, interspersed by clanking, disquieting lulls. Overflowing with blood and guts and freakishly close-up eyeballs, yet conveying empathy for hunter and prey alike, this is cinema which needs to be seen on the big screen to appreciate its immersive (and then some) qualities, both visually and in terms of the eerie, enveloping sound design.
Véréna kindly took the time to chat about assembling such a unique piece to BEV reporter Manish Agarwal, during a promotional visit to London…
BEV: Did you have an affinity for the sea before you started making Leviathan?
VP: An affinity for sure, and some connection with my childhood. My father was an amateur fisherman and diver. He travelled a lot and would take me on his boat everywhere, in every single country where there was an ocean. He would dive and I would spend a lot of time scrutinizing the surface of the sea, following the bubbles and trying to guess where he was. Being a little bit anxious and trying to imagine what it was like to be down there. Suddenly he would emerge and I’d be relieved. Then he’d feed me fish and sea urchins… I have a strong memory of waiting for my father to reappear after disappearing into the sea. So I think it’s actually shaped my imagination about the sea.
Where did you grow up?
Everywhere! I grew up in Algeria and Togo and Ivory Coast. Then in France, in Portugal and also in Brittany. Sometimes really close to sea, sometimes less. But every time we were close to the sea, my father would have a strong engagement with it and I was following him. As well as my own curiosity.
So why New Bedford?
Lucien and I were based in Boston and we wanted to make a film together. New Bedford is an hour south of Boston. It’s the mythic city of Moby-Dick and also the former whaling capital of the world. New Bedford had its glory days and bears all the signs of this past wealth, but today the city is more famous for its fast decline. Drugs, prostitution, and so on. Industries are in recession. When you walk around you see rusted trawlers condemned to stay in dock, but you also walk past the church Melville wrote about in Moby-Dick, about Ishmael and Queequeg. So that’s why we chose New Bedford.
So you were planning a more historical documentary?
It was supposed to be different, for sure. It was supposed to be a film about the fishing industry, where we would never see the sea. That was the initial idea: to work around all the industry related to commercial fishing. One day we were invited to sea by several captains. We decided to go with one and the day we left, what happened at sea was so superior – emotionally, physically, metaphysically – to what we had experienced on land that we decided to jettison whatever we had filmed so far and just stick [with the sea].
The captain of the FV Athena invited you and Lucien, but how did the rest of his crew react to the presence of filmmakers? Were they suspicious?
No, if they were suspicious of anything it was about us being environmentalists. But they soon understood that it was not our goal to finger-point at them. I think they were really happy to have us there for many reasons, one being that the conditions are very, very hard – it’s a lot of boring, exhausting routine – and to have somebody new onboard is a change. They’re also very marginalized. They don’t have an easy life. I think they were absolutely happy to have people there to document their universe, that nobody can seen on land. They have families, but nobody can realise what they’re going through when they’re at sea. Just to have us willing to represent them, to capture this experience, was something they welcomed.
Did they help with the filming?
What we said when arrived was that we had these small cameras and we’d like to make a film all together. Some of them showed us pictures of fish they’d caught a long time ago. Some of them had 8mm films of winter at sea. They were really willing to share and we were also willing to share. Not to make a film about them, but just to make a film together of what it is to be at sea. To have this experience. The idea behind the small cameras, the GoPro, was to be able to film and pass the camera easily from hand to hand, or even attach it to them.
It definitely removes the directorial aspect – we get everybody’s viewpoint. The commercial fishing industry is destructive, but you get a real sense that these men are part of the same ecology as the animals they’re being paid to catch.
We didn’t want to make them heroes or victims. We wanted to create this ontological parity between them – their existence would be the same – but we didn’t want to diminish them. We just wanted to put them on the same level as their machines, the elements, their catch. To understand what it is to be a fish dying, and what it is to be a fisherman suffering to catch this fish. The camera goes from one point to another and sometimes you don’t even know where you are or what is coming. We were seeking to have a sense of the embodied experience. I think those cameras were really entering our willingness to capture that.
You were at sea for quite a long time. How did you cope with those extended trips?
We did six fishing campaigns, lasting between 10 days and three weeks. Lucien was really, really seasick. I was not, though I put my back out several times and ended up in the hospital. Physically it was really hard. Lucien being sick and me being almost paralyzed. Sometimes falling. Also my body is not as strong as theirs, and when the storm was too strong I was flying around on the boat. I was just thrown everywhere.
Did you have preconceptions about what it was going to be like? And was it different from what you expected?
We didn’t expect anything. I think we had an imagination about what it could be like, but we wanted to look at this world anew, with a fresh representation. And we don’t know how to work with a script. If we knew beforehand what we were about to film, I don’t think we’d be interesting in filming it. For us, documenting something is searching for something. You search as you film. You adjust to the world that is falling in front of you, but you’re not trying to frame something in order to have a proposition of any kind.
How does your collaboration work? Who does what?
We both do everything. Every hour, every morning, every night, every time we film. We don’t really decide on what we’re doing. Sometimes we discuss trying different camera positions, but basically if one of us has the instinct to go out front and start filming, then the other has an opposite instinct. So you would have one of us filming at the prow, and the other filming at the end of the boat.
But most of the time, because of the conditions, we’d keep an eye out for each other. So if I decided to grab the camera Lucien would see that nothing was going to hurt me, like a dredge coming down the boat. We’d try to look after each other. It’s almost like a dance that you start by yourself and then the other person joins in. Either to clean the camera – because it’s full of gut fish or blood or sea salt – or just to be aware and attentive of the other person. Protect them from falling overboard. Sometimes I’d film for ten minutes then start to shake. I’d hand over the camera to Lucien for ten minutes, then come back stronger and continue. When you’re used to working together, you don’t even have to talk. You just look at each other and understand what’s going on. It’s really like a dance.
Was it a similar process in post production?
We’d look at the rushes together and be amazed most of the time by the same ones. We would agree that some of them were too déjà vu or flat. Too familiar. Since we didn’t have any real narrative, our discussions were more about when the human beings were going to appear in the film. Are we starting with human beings and then slowly detaching from them, to go back to the deep? When do you that, you do something that is very symbolic. We didn’t want the allegorical to be stronger than the analogical. I think in this film the analogical – the visceral experience of being there – is more important than any allegory.
I don’t eat fish or meat and found it hard to watch in places.
This is also what guided us. This visceral feeling when watching the footage. We would agree on what it does to us. And then this idea of do we start with the abstract and slowly approach the human? What is their weight? Are we portraying a kind of human being that is strong? Or are we trying to put the humans in a larger ecological surrounding?
It feels like both the humans and the fish are endangered species. The film doesn’t privilege one over the other.
Yeah, exactly! Our fear was that this film would be too elitist and a little bit for cinephiles. But at the same time we didn’t really have anything in mind: like if we do that, there will be more of an audience. We did the film that we felt we needed to do. The fishermen watched it and were happy because they recognised their universe in the film. They told us, “We’re not heroes.” They said it with no hard feelings. It was just like, “There are the birds. There are the fish. There is the boat. This is our life. This is where we belong.”
Do you feel that making Leviathan changed you?
I think that such an experience has to change you, but it’s hard to measure or say something really articulate about the way it changes you. I think it changed my way of seeing film and moviemaking. I learned about my relationship to anthropology, to the world… Also it’s because we were searching with the camera, instead of using it to illustrate a proposition or a formula that we already had, that we could be changed by the film. We were trying to find something – to engage with the world – and every time you do that, you are changed by it.
What’s your next project going to be?
There are two projects in Japan. I’m just going to talk about one. We got a commission to make a film about Fukushima. We went to Japan and… I’m pretty sure we’re not going to film Fukushima, but we’re going to try to make a piece that will reflect on risk and catastrophe and our very fragile humanity. Fukushima is just a pretext to talk about all that. Right now it’s very abstract. The only thing I can tell you is that we’re filming through a telescope. Everything seems very close, but also very distanced. Very voyeuristic, yet very scientific. Very abstract, but also clear and concrete. Because of the telescope the texture of the film can be digital but also look like 8mm. So there’s many layers. We don’t work with a script but we’re looking at the world with this telescope and we’re trying to grab something out of it. Trying to make something beautiful out of it. And meaningful, hopefully.
Birds Eye View celebrates and supports female filmmakers. What advice would you give to women starting out in film?
I would say I didn’t do any film school, and I don’t think anybody needs to do any film school. If you really, really want to make a film, grab a camera and just do it.