Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor on their visceral and experimental new documentary Leviathan.
Leviathan is a strange and gripping new documentary set aboard a fishing vessel navigating treacherous waters off New England’s coast. Filmmakers Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor took to the sea themselves, strapped cameras to their bodies and to the bodies of the fishermen they worked with, and were able to secure dizzyingly visceral footage exploring the extreme world of commercial fishing. In rough seas and freezing cold, Taylor and Paravel filmed the fishermen as they slaved without much sleep or pause or even the chance to get warm and dry; it isn’t difficult to trust that fishing boasts one of the highest mortality rates of any occupation.
Leviathan could be viewed as an art film, a collage of beautiful and chaotic images flowing together without explanation: hungry birds soaring above the boat in packs, piles of fish sliding on the slippery deck floor, smashing into one another, bleeding and dying, eyes bulging; the creaks and groans of machinery and the violent claps of the ocean hurtling the ship back and forth like a bath toy. It could be read as an anthropologic study, rendering the specific (and fast-vanishing) lifestyle of a commercial fisherman. The film could even be considered one of the first of its kind—a document of human activity seen not from the perspective of human beings, but from that of the natural world itself: the soaring point of view of a bird in mid-flight, a crazy kaleidoscope of sea and sky alongside the miserable viewpoint of the captured fish, clumped in nets, dying together.
As our conversation makes clear, Taylor and Paravel believe they have captured something important, in that their film can return us, once more, to the “fabric of the world”—a world that many of us have long since lost touch with.
Anya Jaremko-Greenwold There are a lot of shots in the film that seemed impossible for human beings to physically have taken themselves—the cameras must have been strapped down, or aloft on various high-held objects. But how much of the actual filming did you do? And how did you feel this affected the directorial intent?
Lucien Castaing-Taylor We started off filming, like we always do, in lots of different ways with lots of different cameras, including large and more conventional video cameras. And we lost most of those cameras to the sea. So we got progressively smaller.
AJG Did you lose the footage when you lost the cameras?
LCT Not most of it. But a lot of it we shot on land, which we never used. Looking at our footage, we were struck by a paradox, which was that we felt we were seeing moving images and sounds that were simultaneously divorced from shoulder-mounted, optical POV that you associate with documentaries and in particular with non-fiction cinema; it seemed to be completely disembodied, and separated from directorial intentionality in that way. And yet it seemed to be much more yoked to a subjective, embodied experience of the world that you would have when you’re actually in the world, not when you’re just making a film. So it was both disembodied and embodied, and sort of an objective manifestation of a subjective experience. That tension seemed really profitable and powerful for us to explore. Unlike I think what people believe about this movie, we rarely attached cameras to anything other than humans. There were four shots that ended up making their way into the final film that were either on a tripod or attached to different parts of the boat. But only four. Everything else was tethered to a person; rarely on the shoulder or eye-level, but up here (holds hands in the air) or down here (lowers hands to knee level), either hand held by us or attached to the body of a fisherman. On their heads, or their knees, or their chests. This would approximate most clearly their optical and subjective experience of the world.
AJG So a lot of those images came from the fisherman, they really had a hand in the filming—whether purposefully or no. I’m assuming they had no camera experience?
LCT Nope. And it was totally purposeful on our part. We were interested in their experience of the world, and also—in a reductive and absurd way—the actual fish’s experience of the world. But we weren’t interested in turning the fishermen into cinematographers or sharing authorship with them.
AJG You didn’t tell them what to try to film?
LCT No. Basically to be a fisherman is so grueling, they’re worried about losing their lives. If they do one wrong thing they will be hit on the head with a winch and could go overboard. Their labor is so all-consuming and exhausting, they weren’t even thinking about what we were filming—which is, to us, the power of the footage, that it wasn’t motivated by any intentions on their part. To be sure, we had certain prosthetic enhancements, so for some of the shots we’d attach the camera to a stick, etc., which we were holding. But that’s actually a much more embodied and more authentic experience of the world than a crane would be.
AJG So the camera was always attached to something living and breathing.
Véréna Paravel Yes, it’s like an extension of your arm or your eye.
LCT But when it was over water or under water, and one of us would be holding a stick attached to another stick that was holding the camera, there was no viewfinder for us to look through. You’re imagining what is being caught by the camera, and you’re responding to the world physically through that camera.
AJG When you started out to make the film, did you intend it to be an abstract art film—or were you trying to present an ethnographic study about the life of these fishermen? The film doesn’t necessarily seem so sympathetic to the fish’s plight, even when we’re watching them bumping together brutally on the boat’s deck by the hundreds, or being sliced up.
LCT I actually have a lot of sympathy for the fish.
VP Yes, me too. But the film is not sentimental.
AJG Well, people generally have a lot of sympathy for animals who are killed for various forms of food…but not really fish. You don’t hear much about that.
LCT Yeah, it’s more sympathy for dolphins, or other such animals that they can relate to.
AJG Or dogs.
VP I think I have more sympathy for fish than dogs.
VP No, that’s not true. (Laughter).
AJG Well you can’t cuddle them—it’s harder to interact with them.
VP But the way they are killed, it’s disturbing and grotesque…
AJG It is. But we eat those fish, and they are a means to make money for a lot of people.
VP It’s also more of a question of reducing the human, to relativize the human in a wider spectrum, a global environment, rather than trying from the beginning to show how the fish are suffering. It’s like trying to spread the perspective. Most of the time in film it’s a very uni-directional gaze towards the subject, and that’s why we wanted to take into account the sea, the elements, everything.
AJG So everything is equal? Human beings aren’t the central focus?
VP Yes. We wanted to extend that heaviness to everyone.
LCT And to everything. Every animal, vegetable, mineral.
AJG Well, there’s obviously very little dialogue on the ship, the fishermen can’t talk much.
VP It’s too loud!
AJG It seems that these fishermen don’t engage in much human interaction. It’s as if they are more connected to the boat, the elements, the action, as they do their work. Do you think the people who choose to do this profession find a kinship with the ocean instead of with each other? In a different kind of film, you might see such a kinship being established with another person, a love interest or a child. The fishermen do seem distant from each other while they’re working, at least as you guys captured them.
VP I think the opposite!
LCT Me too. I think they have a relationship with the boat—and with nature, with the sea, with the elements—that is intimate. But also extremely violent and aggressive. Like we all have within us, though it’s not repressed and it’s not denied. Yet I think by the same token, the relationships between the humans on these boats is extremely intimate. These aren’t relationships that are expressed through language or dialogue. Real intimacy is never really expressed through language anyway. If they didn’t work together as a team, they wouldn’t be alive. They have to anticipate what each of the others is going to do, even though it is a deeply repetitive endeavor. It’s an incredibly dangerous thing they’re doing, and they have to rely on and have absolute trust in one another.
AJG So, in fact they have to maintain very deep connections to work on the boat together.
LCT Yes. If accidents happen it’s usually due to a failure in communication. It’s a communication that doesn’t usually pass through language. They’re constantly exchanging regards with each other, always looking at each other. Extraordinary things can be communicated with just a look.
AJG The fishermen that you worked with—have they seen the film? Are they interested?
LCT I think they were both desirous and fearful of seeing it. Everyone wants their fifteen minutes of fame. But they also feel completely marginalized and criminalized by the government. To fish, legally, it’s almost impossible to carry out a living. And so to have a film that shows their experience of the world in some authentic way is something they’re really interested in, but at the same time like many marginalized communities there is that sense of inferiority—it’s of interest to us, but is it of interest to anybody else? It’s the kind of film that might appear to be faithful to their experience of the world, but they don’t know whether it will be of interest to outsiders, especially if their only form of reference is Hollywood, or documentaries. They don’t feel they’re equipped to judge films.
AJG Who do you think are the kind of people that want this life? Who would choose this? Is it someone who loves danger, or simply being at sea? It’s not a common path. Only a few people could really stand this line of work; most of us couldn’t hack it.
VP I think the people who can bear to do this are somehow people who cannot really live on land. This is something that came to my mind. It’s basically a space, the ocean, where you have the illusion of freedom—which is a real illusion, because it’s really a prison, you’re trapped. But it also creates a distance from life on land. From what I could understand of what was going on at sea, I couldn’t really imagine those guys living an easy life, a more traditional life, and some of them, I would guess, feel more protected from themselves at sea. There is a certain attraction to the risk and the close relationship with death. This is the only way they go through life, in this extremely intense labor. But all the people that we met, all the fishermen, their time on land is reduced to almost nothing, and it turns out that because of this they cannot really have a proper social or personal life.
AJG They don’t have families back on land?
VP They try to, but it’s obviously very complicated to maintain a regular family life. They are taken by the sea, at the end. There is no way to go back and be stable on land.
LCT I would agree with that, though I don’t agree that it takes a really rare, unusual kind of person to want to do this. I think it’s only very recently in the grand scheme of things in the history of the world that we, humanity as a whole, have lost our relationship to the ocean. In Europe, up until the later part of the twentieth century there was a much closer relationship to the sea. Even if you weren’t a fisherman, there were fishermen living locally, and there weren’t caught fish in the supermarket that didn’t bear any resemblance to the animal they came from at all. We should also not forget that humans, Europeans, came to the new world initially not for religion or in search of freedom or democracy—they came in search of cod. And for 500 years people were coming to the new world and going fishing. The other sadness here is that they’re at the end of the line. There are no fish stocks left. They’ve all been so depleted. The governments have so mismanaged fishing in the last 200 years. Often these fishermen become fishermen not because they have some innate desire for danger or to escape domestic attachments but because they come from a long-standing tradition, from fishing families and so on. That’s what these communities do and have always done. So there’s a real sadness there in realizing they can no longer do it. But very few fishermen that we’ve met hoped that their children would become fishermen too.
AJG Do you find that progression away from the sea regrettable? It’s true that human beings now have less of a bond with nature than ever. Do you think this is dangerous, that we are coming away from something essential?
VP Not to be connected to the earth is extremely sad. I don’t know if I would say dangerous.
LCT I think it’s sad, profoundly melancholic—and it’s dangerous, because we humans are still part of the natural world, even if we forget it to oblivion. If we don’t think we have anything to do with nature then we can willfully destroy the world, and we can get to the point where it’s too late for us to address the balances that we’ve dislodged. I also think that any life form or culture that comes into being, human or animal, that withers away, is an impoverishment of the world in a sense. We’re becoming more and more homogenized; different ways of being in the world are being knocked out of existence.
AJG Did you know you were going to make a movie about those things when you started out, or did this come as a surprise to you?
LCT We didn’t know what movie we were going to make. We never do. We never will. We never have scripts. We have a lot of ideas, but the ones that pan out will be born out of our experience with the world, through ourselves and through our cameras. I think we were always interested in making a film about fishing, our relationship to the sea, but one that would de-sentimentalize it, that would conjure into being a different relationship between the human and the non-human. We didn’t want a typical fishing documentary, or a film like The Perfect Storm, about the human battling the elements. We want people to come away feeling they’ve had an encounter with reality that is new and novel and disturbing.
VP It is a film that restores us, in a way, to the fabric of the world.
LCT Which is also disturbing, because we’ve lost that umbilical cord. And we realize how self-destructive that loss is.
VP We tried to do that, to put us back into the world. To feel it.
AJG Do you think your film is be difficult for some people to watch? There’s a lot of audience members who wouldn’t know what to think after or while watching it.
VP Well if they feel, that’s good. If they don’t know what to think, that’s good.
LCT Some people are not bothered by that, and others are. But there’s this desire to experience a representation or a documentary and come away feeling educated or enlightened or enriched. Or that they’ve found answers. We’re interested in those harder to pose questions, problems which don’t have an easy resolution—or the resolutions are not easily reducible or transformed into public policy.
AJG Would you ever be interested in making a documentary in which you fabricated elements for the story, or had the documentary emerge as a more obvious portrait of what you yourselves think and feel?
VP We’re not against anything. But there will still be a willingness on our part to leave some space for accident, or a brutal encounter, something that is not controlled or an imposition of our intentions. Maybe one day we’ll do something that will be a different approach.
LCT I also think films are open-ended, in that they resonate differently for every spectator.
AJG That’s why people argue about them so much!
LCT Yes—well you read this initially as a film that didn’t have sympathy with the fish, thinking humans had more of a connection with the sea than they did with each other, and I read this as a different film. So to me this film could be read as a completely impersonal, cold film but at the same time one might see it as an utterly unmediated representation of the horror and the beauty of a very private, very personal experience that we had with those fishermen, on that boat, with those fish, in the sea, and the entanglements between these things. The way in which it is personal is not always transparent to others. It’s not diaristic, or confessional—you don’t feel like you’re inside the brain of Werner Herzog, for example.
AJG Do you feel in leaving things so open-ended, it allows people a better opportunity for having a personal, intimate connection with the material?
LCT And interpretive and analytical. You’re not trying to foreclose the meaning of a film, saying “this is how you’re supposed to feel at the end of it.” It gives people the capacity to respond to it in different ways, to interpret and analyze it very differently as well. You could say that’s an irresponsible act in a sense, because it’s not didactic or pedagogical. But it’s also opening up representation, giving a great autonomy to the viewer—greater power and responsibility. You have to work harder.
AJG Some audience members don’t want to work harder.
LCT Of course they don’t—most cinema doesn’t encourage that.
VP You’re completely lost, if you remove these moralistic relationships . . .
LCT Which is just infantilizing in the end. We don’t want to make movies that way.
Leviathan opens March 1st at the IFC Center.
Anya Jaremko-Greenwold is a film critic based in New York City.