By DENNIS LIM
Published: August 31, 2012
TUCKED within the syllabus for a class that the filmmaker and anthropologist Lucien Castaing-Taylor teaches at Harvard is a rhetorical question that sums up his view of nonfiction film: “If life is messy and unpredictable, and documentary is a reflection of life, should it not be digressive and open-ended too?”
Straddling academia and the art house, Mr. Castaing-Taylor and his associates and students at the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard have been responsible for some of the most daring and significant documentaries of recent years, works that — not incidentally — challenge the conventions of both ethnographic film and documentary in general.
Documentary, as practiced in this country today, is a largely informational genre, driven by causes or personalities. The ethnographic film, traditionally the province of anthropologists investigating the cultures of others, is in some ways even more rigid, charged with analyzing data and advancing arguments. In both cases the emphasis is on content over form. What tends to get lost is the simple awareness that film, unlike a pamphlet or an academic paper, is a medium ideally suited to capturing the flux of lived experience.
Mr. Castaing-Taylor established the lab in 2006 as a collaboration between the departments of anthropology and visual and environmental studies. Asked recently about its founding principles, he said: “It takes ethnography seriously. It’s not as though you can do ethnography with a two-day, fly-by-night visit somewhere. But it also takes ‘sensory’ seriously. Most anthropological writing and most ethnographic film, with the exception of some truly great works, is so devoid of emotional or sensory experience.” Above all, he added: “It takes what art can do seriously. It tries to yoke it to the real in some way.”
As with the pioneering anthropological works of Jean Rouch and Robert Gardner, the founder of Harvard’s Film Study Center (which Mr. Castaing-Taylor now directs), the best films to have emerged from the lab are potent reminders that documentary and art are not mutually incompatible. As Mr. Castaing-Taylor put it: “What does it mean to try to produce an artwork after months of doing field work and when you get really close to people? What kind of art can be generated by that?”
The answers are as striking as they are varied. Mr. Castaing-Taylor’s “Sweetgrass” (2009), which he made with Ilisa Barbash, also an anthropologist and a curator at the Peabody Museum at Harvard, is a visually majestic chronicle of Montana sheep ranchers, filmed over the course of three summer pastures. Véréna Paravel’s and J. P. Sniadecki’s “Foreign Parts” (2010) is a lived-in portrait, tender but unsentimental, of an endangered junkyard neighborhood in Willets Point, Queens.
Stephanie Spray has worked extensively in Nepal, producing intricate sound pieces and intimate family portraits like “As Long as There’s Breath” (2009). Mr. Sniadecki’s latest,“People’s Park,” which he directed with Libbie Dina Cohn, is a single-shot tour of a bustling park in Chengdu, China, achieved through careful planning, multiple takes and an evident rapport with the park’s denizens.
“Leviathan,” a new film by Ms. Paravel and Mr. Castaing-Taylor, is perhaps the most radical work yet to emerge from the lab and certainly the one that goes furthest in striving for an immersive cinematic experience. Shot entirely aboard a fishing trawler off the Massachusetts coast, largely with small, waterproof digital cameras that were variously tethered to the fishermen, tossed in with their dead or dying catch and plunged into the roiling ocean, the film had its premiere in competition last month at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland, where it won the international critics’ prize. It will be shown next week at the Toronto International Film Festival, in the Wavelengths section for innovative cinema and at the New York Film Festival.
A portrait of commercial fishing in the North Atlantic as the written word alone could never render it, “Leviathan” conveys the brutal toll that the enterprise takes on the workers and on the ocean, and it could even be read as an environmental parable in which the sea threatens to exact its revenge on humanity. But none of this is explicit in the film, which avoids exposition and context, unfolds almost entirely in the dark and often verges on hallucinatory abstraction. Where most documentaries prize clarity, this one attests to the power of estrangement.
Over dinner in Brooklyn one July evening while in New York to complete the color correction and sound mix for “Leviathan,” Mr. Castaing-Taylor acknowledged that he was still unsure how to describe the film. “It is utterly a documentary, and in the sense that we gave over the camera for part of it, it’s perhaps even more documentary, less mediated by the filmmakers,” he said. “But it also doesn’t feel like a documentary to me. It feels more like a horror film or science fiction.”
Mr. Castaing-Taylor, who was born in Liverpool, England, where his father worked in shipping, said “Leviathan” had begun as a broader inquiry into shipping and fishing. He was drawn to the coastal town of New Bedford, Mass., the onetime whaling capital of the world immortalized in Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick,” and the tension between its mythic status and today’s down-at-the-heels reality. The initial idea was to capture the different facets of the fishing industry, and he started by shooting in the local factories that produce dredges, nets and ice.
Early last year, after Ms. Paravel joined Mr. Castaing-Taylor on the project and after they had shot some 50 hours of footage on land, the filmmakers were invited out to sea by the fishermen they had befriended. “Once we started filming on the boat, we lost interest in land,” Mr. Castaing-Taylor said. “There was something going on out there that was much more cosmic and profound.”
In rough seas and frigid temperatures nearly 200 miles off the coast, perpetually wet and rarely sleeping more than two hours at a stretch, the filmmakers faced constant reminders that fishing has one of the highest mortality rates of any occupation. Mr. Castaing-Taylor was seasick much of the time; Ms. Paravel was so physically battered from the outings that twice she had to be taken to the emergency room upon returning. They made six trips in all, each one lasting up to two weeks.
“The film became a physical reaction to the experience of being out at sea,” Ms. Paravel said, speaking by Skype from Brittany. She added that the meaning of “Leviathan,” the title from the get-go, evolved as the film progressed. Originally an allusion to Melville, who used it to refer to great whales, and to the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, for whom it symbolized the state (and who also argued that all thought originates in sensory experience), the word became most apt in its original biblical sense of a sea monster.
Melville remained a guiding spirit. “Moby-Dick,” which Ms. Paravel and Mr. Castaing-Taylor took turns reading to each other on the boat, also has a pronounced documentary aspect, as Ms. Paravel pointed out. “He has all these endless descriptions of all kinds of whales,” she said.
On the second trip, having already lost one camera to the waves, the filmmakers tried out the GoPro, a compact and durable attachable camera popular among extreme-sports enthusiasts. Part of the appeal of the GoPro footage — especially in the pitch-black night scenes, with movement sometimes registering as ghostly afterimages — was that it lacked the definition of more expensive cameras. “The footage seemed to be much more opaque in a good way,” Mr. Castaing-Taylor said. “It activated the viewer’s imagination much more.”
“Leviathan” extends the point-of-view experiments of “Sweetgrass,” sections of which Mr. Castaing-Taylor shot with a torso-strapped camera amid hundreds of sheep, as if part of the herd. This time the small, inexpensive cameras allowed them to “distribute the authorship,” Ms. Paravel said, enabling a collaboration of sorts among the filmmakers, their subjects and nature itself.
Mr. Castaing-Taylor recalled the first time he watched the footage from cameras that had been affixed to the fishermen’s helmets as they scrambled about the slippery deck. “It was more corporeal, more embodied than the most frenetic vérité footage,” he said. “There’s this charge of subjectivity. But at the same time it renounces any directorial intent.” The filmmakers also taped the cameras to wooden poles that they dipped into the water, resulting in disorienting shots of bloody fish parts tumbling back into the ocean and upside-down views of swarming sea gulls overhead.
As with most Sensory Ethnography Lab films, sound plays an important role in the nearly wordless but often thunderous “Leviathan”; the sound artist Ernst Karel, who teaches in the program, collaborates on the sound mixes and designs for most of the films. For “Leviathan” he and a sound designer, Jacob Ribicoff, combined the industrial din of machinery and engines with the gasping sounds that the encased GoPro cameras produced when submerged.
For all its innovations in suggesting new possibilities for the video image, the formal questions behind a film like “Leviathan” are part of a venerable tradition. Its quest to find fresh ways of seeing, to push the limits of cinema as a tool for both capturing reality and heightening the senses, was precisely the one that, as far back as the 1920s, compelled the Soviet master Dziga Vertov to formulate his concept of the camera as an all-seeing, endlessly perfectible Kino-Eye.
“Leviathan,” which looks and sounds like no other documentary in memory, is likely to be one of the most talked-about art films of the year; it prompted both raves and walkouts at Locarno. At the premiere Ms. Paravel introduced the film as “a monster.” After the screening, she gamely answered questions about process but declined to be pinned down on meaning.
“We still don’t know exactly what the film is about,” she said.