In what could be described as an annus mirabilis for documentaries, Leviathan (2012) stands out as a monstrous marvel; something to inspire terror, confusion and awe. Taking the relatively unpromising subject of industrial fishing of the North American coast – New Bedford, Massachusetts to be precise – filmmakers Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel have created an immersive, abstract poem of a film which captures the powerful war between man and nature “red in tooth and claw”. There’s no dialogue, no story and, except for the orange of the crews’ waterproofs and fish remnants, little colour.
The soundtrack of Leviathan is dominated by watery distortion, the cries of the gulls and the mechanical roaring of machinery. When human voices are heard they’re distant, flat and inaudible, drowned out by the sensory assault of the surroundings. We see the nets being hauled in by enormous winches, the flapping, eye-bulging fish and the blood and guts that gushes from the deck. We’re either immersed in the waves or flying in the sky with the gulls which unrelentingly follow the trawler. The perspectives the directors have managed to achieve range from the almost microscopically focused – an exhausted sea bird scurries across the deck in search of food – to an epic grandeur which aspires to the biblical heft of the title.
Deprived of human interest, the men who work the hulking ship become grim servants of the beast, mechanically gutting fish, shucking scallops or filling plastic tubs with detritus. Their humanity is confined to a shared cigarette, a tattooed aspiration or a moment falling asleep in front of TV’s The Deadliest Catch. Their perspective is only one line of interest and the cameras weigh it equally with the sea creatures that are caught and killed with pitiless efficiency and the birds which hope for a piece of the carcass. Deprived of the comforting direction of a voice over, or even a real sense of a single story being put together, the viewer is able to bring their own perspective.
There’s certainly an environmentalist viewpoint here for those who wish to find it, but there’s also the sense that the men featured fully belong to that nature rather than stand in opposition to it. The one moment this fails is when Castaing-Taylor and Paravel choose to conclude with a written dedication to the ships lost in fishing these same waters. It’s a testament to the power and originality of Leviathan that this seems like an unwanted privileging of only one of the characters.
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