Leviathan (2013)

First published by Grolsch FilmWorks

“He maketh the deep to boil like a pot: he maketh the sea like a pot of ointment.
He maketh a path to shine after him; one would think the deep to be hoary.
Upon earth there is not his like, who is made without fear.”

Not every commercial fishing documentary takes its title from an Old Testament sea monster, or opens with verses from the Book of Job (41:31-33) describing the fearsome creature – but then Leviathan is far from ordinary: an impressionistic conjuring of life (and death) on a large ground fish trawler, as its crew work their haul. ‘Leviathan’ was also the word Herman Melville used for great whales in Moby Dick (set, like the film, off the coast of New Bedford, Massachusetts) – but as mobile, water-proof cameras capture the swirling turmoil this cast-iron nautical behemoth creates beneath the watery surface, the slaughter it brings to ocean fauna, and the glistening wake it leaves in its trail, it becomes clear that the boat itself, rather than any outsized whale, is the true leviathan of the title.

As part of the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard University, filmmakers Véréna Paravel (Foreign Parts) and Lucien Castaing-Taylor (Sweetgrass) embed themselves in the boat’s workings, doing the filming themselves, or attaching their cameras to the fishing crew. While they favour the close-up, placing viewers right inside the action, they also maintain a certain distance as anthropological observers, whether through the use of oblique, canted angles and a refusal to turn the fishermen into ‘characters’ (there is no dialogue), or more subtly by shooting hunters and prey in exactly the same fascinated manner. For Leviathan depicts a rarely seen ecology that just happens to include humans – and the closing credits contain both a dedication that acknowledges the many fishermen who have also died in this endeavour, and a cast list that gives equal, democratically alphabetised prominence to the names of the participating fishermen and of the fish species that they catch. An earlier focus on one sailor’s mermaid tattoo encapsulates the symbiosis between marine and terrestrial life that the film celebrates.

As the cameras dip in and out of the sea, join captured fish in a vat, fly with gulls through the air, or survey men above and below decks, we are inundated with a soundscape of overamplified splashes, winch rattles, engine drones and oceanic rumbles. For, Leviathan is a hallucinatory trawl through the reeling rhythms of the aquatic food chain and the industrialised processes that are its final link to humankind, replacing conventional notions of story with a woozy sense of audiovisual immersion. A scene near the end in which one crew member slowly falls asleep while watching a television programme about another fishing crew might point self-consciously to one possible response to such hypnotic material – but for those who do not carp at the absence of a narrative hook, this synaesthetic ichthyo-apocalypse is oddly angled, intimately scaled and well worth catching.

Anton Bitel