Tuesday, January 7, 2014


Without narration, Leviathan is a documentary that forces the viewer to pay attention to every detail and make up his/her own mind as to the goings on in the frame. It is a complete visual experience. The camera bobs and weaves and dips and dunks and by the end of the film’s short running time (87 minutes) you feel as though you’ve been on board a ship. From press releases, the documentary was shot on board a fishing vessel conducting its business out on the treacherous waters off the coast of New England that inspired Melville’s Moby Dick. With this and many of the film’s most arresting images in mind, it becomes clear the directors’ intent is to show us that they’ve seen the leviathan, and it is us.

While the film grows tedious at times as we watch the fishermen go about their work in a machine-like manner, there are many images that carry with them the power of great paintings. Gutted fish swirling in a barrel, eyes open and lifeless, mouths gaping as their own blood and fluids flow in and out. Countless gallons of blood, guts, and stingray wings sluicing off the sides of the vessel in thick waves of red.  Legions of gulls swooping into the ocean to scavenge the floating parts, the camera capturing both the majesty and the terror of their shrieking presence.  The images show the horror of the work these men do, the way nature is graphically mutilated for the sake of industry.

Yet, Leviathan doesn’t seem to condemn the fishermen. Nor does it romanticize the work they do, not like reality shows such as Deadliest Catch. This is pure naturalism. These men have a job to do. They are quiet and efficient. They look upon the ocean with haunted eyes, weathered by past excursions, with bodies scarred by either their trade or their tattoos, which may be the only things to remind them they are alive. This work is painful and relentless.

But even though we are not judging the men who do such work, we are left to question the job they are doing. Is this humane? Is it necessary? How much longer can we continue to comb the oceans for fish and oysters before we wear out a precious resource?  The movie’s only attempt at an answer may come in its epigraph, which quotes Job 41:

Canst thou draw out leviathan with a hook? Or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down?...Behold, the hope of him is in vain: shall not one be cast down even at the sight of him?

Whether Leviathan is truly trying to make a political statement or not, it is an arresting experience, pushing the barriers as to how a documentary can influence us.

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