Between the two of them, filmmakers Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel have explored sheepherding in Montana, auto shops and junkyards in Queens and most recently, the fishing industry in the North Atlantic. Their experimental documentary “Leviathan” is both visceral and gritty, in no way spoon-feeding its audience information, but rather, completely immersing them in the gruesome, often dangerous environment aboard a commercial fishing liner.
A product of Harvard University’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, this dizzying, relatively wordless art piece is unlike anything you’ve seen before on screen. It’s shot with dozens of tiny cameras that linger on piles of half-dead fish and swarms of seagulls flying overhead, and by no means is intended for those seeking mindless entertainment. Farran Nehme of the New York Post says it best in that the “the adventurous souls who stick with it will find head-spinning images and a cumulative impact that does, in fact, amount to a story.”
“Leviathan” is slated for a select number of screenings at FilmBar in downtown Phoenix as part of the theater’s experimental film series. En route to Montreal, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel caught up with the East Valley Tribune via email to discuss the film, the editing process and the many challenges they faced at sea.
Q: To begin with, I understand that you guys started out shooting in New Bedford and watching the fishermen work on land, but ultimately scrapped that in favor of filming at sea. What was your motivation for doing this and from that point on, did you see your creative vision shift in any other ways?
A: That's right. We initially thought we'd make a film about fishing in which you'd never see the sea or go fishing, but once we started going out into the middle of the Atlantic on trawlers, we lost all interest in the land. It's too familiar. Everything we experienced out at sea seemed much more fundamental, cosmic, fascinating, humbling...We don't have any explicit creative vision, so it's not for us to say how it changed. We just try to let the world express itself through us, oftentimes unconsciously.
Q: How would you describe your experience on the ship itself? I read that it was completely hands-on in the way that you guys were actually crawling into the piles of fish and over the rails of the vessel in order to get shots. Any near-death experiences?
A: It was intense, sure. Lucien puked up every 20 minutes or so for two days at the beginning of every trip; Véréna put her back out twice to the point of being almost paralyzed. We would work 20 or more hours, out of any 24, to be on the same schedule as the fishermen. Out in the middle of the Atlantic, especially in rough weather, you lose all your bearings. Out on deck, you barely know whether you're above or under water. You feel minuscule in this universe. When we were filming the sea birds and under water, one of us would have to hold on to the other while he or she held the camera on a 16' stick, so we didn't fall overboard. It was dangerous to be out on deck, but no more so than for the fishermen. No near-death experiences.
Q: You’ve said before that you went on five or six voyages with the fishermen and ultimately ended up with over 250 hours of footage. When editing this down to 90 minutes, what was your thought process in terms of structure or a loose narrative?
A: We had many, and none. Most of it was unconscious. Our biggest challenge was what role to give the humans. We didn't want to make the 10 trillionth film about fishing, romanticizing their labor, etc., etc. We weren't sure whether to start in the domain of the recognizably human and end in the realm of something much vaster and more transcendental, or to start off in the realm of wild nature and progressively hone in on the familiarly human, or neither. It looks like we ended up with neither.
Q: One of my favorite sequences was toward the very end, when the camera appears to be bobbing in the ocean – sometimes submerged, but the majority of the time observing the seagulls hovering above the water. Could you tell me more about how shots like this were done and what challenges you may have encountered in doing so?
A: Yeah, one of us would try to hold on to the other while he wielded and whirled the camera around on the end of a 16' two-by. Neither of us could look through the viewfinder, but it's not very important to look through a viewfinder when filming anyway. We try to film with our whole bodies, sensing, groping, exploring, but just with your eyes, as if composing a picture by violently extracting it from the world.
Q: To wrap things up, have you watched anything recently that you’ve especially enjoyed or would recommend? A feature film, documentary, television series or anything like that?
A: Neither of us has a television. Two films – “Attenberg” by Athina Rachel Tsangari and Nico Pereda's “Greatest Hits.”
“Leviathan” will play at 2 p.m. April 14 and 8:30 p.m. April 21 at FilmBar in downtown Phoenix. For more information about FilmBar and to purchase tickets, visit http://www.thefilmbarphx.com/.
To learn more about “Leviathan,” visit http://www.arretetoncinema.org/leviathan/.