Saturday, September 22, 2012

VIFF must-see: Leviathan

I previewed a remarkable VIFF documentary today called Leviathan (that's a VIFF link; the official site is here, a NY Times article here). Aesthetically, the film exists on some sort of continuum between Gaspar Noe (due to its impossible, disorienting, but utterly compelling camera movements) and the films of Michael Glawogger (in particular, the Nigerian open-air slaughterhouse of Workingman's Death), with maybe a pinch of the Hostel aesthetic for good measure; I've seen nothing quite like it, and despite having seen it this evening on the small screen, will definitely be making time to catch it on the big screen at VIFF at least once. The film - the writers of the VIFF catalogue describe it as "immersive," which surely is a bit of a tongue-in-cheek reference to how much time the camera spends in the water - shows in intimate and often gory detail the realities of modern fishing: reeling in and casting out the nets, gutting the fish, hosing down decks, cutting open shellfish, and so forth; it lacks any narration or overtly narrative structure, and mostly consists of long, unbroken takes (from very motile, often seemingly free-floating cameras), with no music or explanation of what you're seeing; while the fishermen  do speak to one another occasionally, it's never in the context of a conversation you can or need to follow. 
Perhaps none of this sounds like the stuff of a near hallucinatory, transcendental, profoundly visually rewarding film experience, but that's exactly what Leviathan is. The film is shot from the point of view of obviously very small digital cameras, which sometimes appear to do utterly impossible things - unobtrusively tracking a trapped bird about a deck, being swept out to sea with the chum,  and/or  floating amidst dead fish, fishguts, scallop shells and the occasional bit of harvested garbage inside the boat. One lengthy shot has the camera stream along behind the ship, reeling freely, showing us glimpses of discarded fish parts below the water and seagulls above; I would be unsurprised to discover that the camera was simply being pulled through the water, with no control or operator input over what it captured (this also seems to be the case as we slosh about with the fishheads). It's breathtaking stuff, particularly since the camera movements are for the most part quite new; you've never seen a film composed quite this way before, and - if you're a cinephile, at least - the awareness of this originality will make it all the more compelling. There are only three or four sequences that depart from the aesthetic mentioned above, all showing the crew (at work, at rest, even in the shower) with static cameras; these are not as interesting, either formally or in terms of the images captured (because a fat man in the shower is simply not as exciting to watch as eye-level sloshing fish viscera: if I want to see a fat man in the shower, I can pull aside the shower curtain and catch myself in the mirror any old time, at least until it steams up). There is probably a point to these shots that justifies them, but you'll be eager to get back out into the chum and the gulls and the destructive, industrial-strength mess outside, which, thankfully, is where we spend 85% of the film's runtime.
Leviathan was made with the participation of the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab (a positively Cronenbergian name, eh?); another film in this year's VIFF, People's Park, also emerges from this group, though I have not yet seen it and can't speak for it. The lab is headed by Leviathan co-director Lucien Castaing-Taylor, who also co-directed a previous VIFF favourite, Sweetgrass, following Montana sheep ranchers and their animals. I was less than 100% enthusiastic about Sweetgrass, but Leviathan is an absolute must-see; wordplay aside, it truly is immersive, a visual and auditory feast and an essential document of our world, horrifying as it sometimes can be. It's rather like The Act of Seeing With Ones Own Eyes for fishing. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

thanks for this write-up - i'll be sure to check this one out, sounds fascinating.

i saw GRIOT this afternoon, very much enjoyed that one -- a doc about the senegalese kora player ablaye cissoko.