Leviathan is a documentary that doubles as a thoroughly unpleasant experience. The film is the result of two directors, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, who work with the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard University. They took tiny waterproof cameras, attached them to various employees and pieces of equipment on a fishing boat, and edited the footage together to create something that nearly caused me to vomit. It's an experience that is as educational as it is visceral through almost no words and many sights and sounds of the ship.
It's also a memorable documentary that the stills I've assembled here do little justice. The motion of the film, moving from the grim darkness into the overbearing morning light, captures the exhausting labor of the fishermen and the brutality of their existence. For hours on end these men are working within a millimeter of bone crushing machinery that could grab hold of one of their gloves at any time. Even with the evidence on display, I can still scarcely imagine just how crushing their jobs are, and how deadened they must be to perform them.
The disorientation begins immediately in a single shot that, by my eye, lasts a little over thirteen minutes. This piece of footage sets the grueling tone of the rest of the film with images that make little sense at first and are downright horrific when combined with their sounds. We begin in darkness, hearing scrapes and groans nearby, while dirty pieces of colored metal flash in and out of view. The view zooms around not with hurry, but with the kind of caution that comes with years of knowing what danger to look out for.
Slowly the pieces are assembled and we see a net, hands of other workers grasping and releasing the fish, and then in a terrifying sequence we're down in the oceanic abyss. The motif of the film is to scare us with more information as every reveal just shows more of how much danger they could potentially be in at all times. The maddening confusion of the first images settles in to the ocean, then when we get a quiet moment it's from the view of the leading ship and we see just how big the fisherman's vessel is, even further on when daybreak finally comes the enormity of the operation similarly snaps into focus, and how brutal the excursion is.
What words we hear are mumbled and always sound like someone giving tired instructions for the first time. After seeing the effect of the machinery on nature, this makes perfect sense, as all it would take is the sight of one accident to make all other dialogue mute. So the film takes the extra step and eliminates almost all dialogue, making the only intelligible language coming from facile mid-day television advertisements and the rest those quickly fading warnings. All communication stems from the simple fact that they are here to kill as many creatures as possible with machines that could just as easily kill them, and maybe they can get a smoke while waiting for more fish to die.
For film as education, little else can be done to convince audiences of the fragile balance between man's technological superiority over other species and just how quickly that could turn around. Leviathan is not interested in providing cheap thrills, we don't get to know any characters, and there aren't any accidents. It can only move among the crew with the speed they can, and we see just how much death these men are capable of with the tools they have. Time after time we return to the blood soaked water as it drifts back into the ocean or sloshes around the deck.
The only problem with Leviathan comes with the same warning as my recommendation. It is an exhausting film, one that I barely had the strength to finish. This is a documentary in the truest sense of the word. No sympathy is asked for the people who choose to lead this life, nor empathy requested for the creatures taken by their hands. All it asks is that we sit, watch, and decide for ourselves just what their lives are worth.
Directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel.