One of the most divisive films to be released this year is the documentary Leviathan (2012). Not divisive in the sense of its material being controversial or engaging, but rather the style in which the material is presented. Created by directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor (Sweetgrass (2009)) and Verena Paravel (Foreign Parts (2010)), we step aboard a small commercial fishing vessel off the coast of Massachusetts and witness a regular day and night in the life of a group of fishermen. Leviathan doesn’t present any individual viewpoints or critique the fishing practice. It simply shows what occurs and for that it is a pure documentary. Everything you witness is for you to critique.
Some may be disgusted to see stingray’s fins chopped off in mechanic fashion while still breathing. Others will find beauty in the ship’s efficiency as it maneuvers during a grand haul. For me, certain scenes play out as if they are a part of a horror film with fish’s blood making its way onto every pore of the fisherman and the vessel itself.
There is hardly any dialogue and the majority of the footage seems to be captured via GoPro that appears to be randomly attached to different structures aboard the ship. These shots shift from the ship’s starboard, to its underbelly, to the chum spilled in the ocean to attract the fish. At first, the environment feels new and cringe-worthy – almost rendering the viewer into a claustrophobic haze. Then, after an hour, you begin to notice that you’re beginning to look at your watch wondering when you dock and can get off the ship.
In the documentary Sweetgrass, we witnessed the very last sheep drive over the Beartooth Mountains of Montana. A trade once necessary for food transports that is no longer a needed practice in today’s food stream. We see the people who to this day relied on these annual drives. We witnessed the grit, routine, and beauty involved in transporting thousands of sheep. Again, in Sweetgrass, there was no plot or idealistic viewpoint, but we were fully absorbed in its elements, predators, and personality.
In Leviathan, we simply only see the process and the circle of life. We only see injured birds, fish being filleted while still alive, and groggy-eyed fisherman. While Leviathan has some beautiful shots, in sum it felt like a bunch of cameras were simply left running over night and everything that was usable was featured. After it was labelled as one of the must-see documentaries of 2013, I never thought I’d want to throw myself overboard just so I could swim back to shore.