Discover This: Leviathan

Copyright: Arsenal – Institut für Film und Videokunst

I was on a fishing boat when I lost track of time and space. The dark swallowed me and night turned into day. I didn’t know whether I was sick or healthy, dreaming or working, whether I was hallucinating or wide awake. I became one with the ocean and its creatures which I killed every day. Its ghosts followed me from above and beyond, from up and down, from inside the water, and inside the boat. I had met Leviathan.

I wasn’t actually in a fishing boat and I hadn’t actually met the mythological creature from the deep seas. Instead, I was inside the black vaults of a cinema and got sucked into what I can only describe as the most exciting cinematic experience of my life.

Copyright: Arsenal – Institut für Film und Videokunst
Copyright: Arsenal – Institut für Film und Videokunst

It was at this year’s Berlin Film Festival that Leviathan spread its tentacles over the city, sliding along the borders of film, art, and installation, pushing its body into the cinema halls and out again, living in art spaces and vanishing back into the dark. Leviathan is not a film, but a physical experience that changes its shapes and overwhelms your senses.

Filmmakers Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel spent a year on a fishing boat with fishermen off the coast of New England. When the shooting started, they lost their entire camera equipment to the wild waves of the ocean and had to start from scratch. This time, they made sure the cameras where safe by fastening them to the bodies of the fishermen and adjusting them to metal rods that would fly alongside the seagulls. They would tie a camera to a string and push it into the ship’s hold, in the midst of the haul, right into a pile of suffocating dying fish.

 

The small water- and shockproof GoPro-cameras that the filmmakers used were originally developed to film surfing competitions. Their extreme versatility allows the image to ignore all barriers that conventional camera equipment usually entails. This new vision, this new experience of being through seeing, is revolutionary. The camera is on its own mission most of the time, its images unleashed, unbound, unfettered. Arbitrary in its framing, overmastering in its power. The results took my breath away, made my heart race, made me seasick.

In the beginning, I was a fisherman. I looked into the abyss and all my eyes could see was the pitch-black night. I could only make out shapes in strangely exaggerated colours, but most of it was unrecognisable. Maybe I was too tired from hard work or maybe the complete loss of any feeling for time played tricks on my perception. There was only the ocean, and so I pulled up the nets and watched the fish thrash around until their lungs exploded. I didn’t care anymore. I just did my job.

There is a loss of control on a boat like this, Véréna Paravel reports after the screening. When she talks, you can feel that the shooting was difficult – personally, physically, and emotionally. Both she and co-director Lucien Castaing-Taylor were helping out the fishermen during the making of the film. Bound to the high seas on a small fishing boat for weeks, you slowly start to lose your mind, Paravel says. There is no privacy, no intimacy, no night, no day, no hours, no times, only the ocean and the constant noise of the machines.

Copyright: Arsenal - Institut für Film und Videokunst
Copyright: Arsenal – Institut für Film und Videokunst

The filmmakers sent out their cameras and used them as guinea pigs and explorers that then travel and dive or swim in pools of water amongst the remains of the once living catch. The cameras fly in the air, explore the ocean, get covered in starfish and clouded by fish blood, before the popped-out eyes of dead underwater creatures stare at them.

When I slipped out of my body, I flew alongside the birds above the ship. I bumped into a seagull, glided along in the cold winds, and then suddenly flew upside down. I crashed into the waves and stayed in the cold water not knowing why. I re-emerged and went under again and had finally lost all control over movement and direction, over purpose, life, and death. Leviathan had gotten over me.

I closed my eyes. I heard splashing and roaring, squishing and rumbling, screams and the dull sounds of the underwater world.

Leviathan is not a documentary film, it’s a happening. It’s physical and metaphysical at the same time. It’s a non-narrative and experimental experience in amazement at 24 frames per second. But Leviathan also changes its shape, reduces its speed, and shifts its habitat and name.

Copyright: Arsenal – Institut für Film und Videokunst

When Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel worked on the film in post-production, they discovered something mysterious in their material. Sparks or splashes, something unnameable, or some kind of ghost appeared in the frames. The filmmakers extracted the material that was shot in between sky and ocean and slowed it down to one frame per minute. They named it Canst Thou Draw Out Leviathan With A Hook? and He Maketh a Path to Shine after Him; One Would Think the Deep to be Hoary and showed in at various new spaces for Forum Expanded at the Berlin Film Festival this year.
The Last Judgement was an installation that projected seagull images into the cross vault of a former crematorium in Wedding. The six-hour version He Maketh a Path to Shine after Him; One Would Think the Deep to be Hoary was cut into pieces and shown for two hours every day at the Arsenal 2. It will now be reinstalled for a day in its entirety.

I was shaken, I was breathless, my lungs still filled with water, my face covered in blood and the smell of fish. The lights went on and I returned to some sort of reality. My friend and I walked out of the cinema, both speechless. A day later she said: “You could tell me it was 30 minutes long or that it went on for hours – I would believe anything.” We planned to go back into the darkness and into the madness as often as we could. We both needed to meet Leviathan again.

Leviathan, USA/UK/France 2012, 87 min.

director, cinematography, editing, production, script: Lucien Castaing-Taylor und Véréna Paravel, languages: no dialogue (bits of English), distribution: arsenal distribution
Berlin screenings: Fsk, Brotfabrik (both 23.05.-05.06), arsenal (25.05.), Downstairs im Filmcafé (29.5-12.06), Tilsiter Lichtspiele (20.06-03.07.)

He Maketh a Path to Shine after Him; One Would Think the Deep to be Hoary, USA/UK/France 2012, 360 min, Berlin screening: Arsenal, May 23rd, 7 pm

We give away 2×2 free tickets for the screening of Leviathan at Arsenal this Saturday, May 25th, 7.30 pm. Send an email to toby@stilinberlin.de, subject line: Between the devil and the deep blue sea. Tell me why you want to encounter Leviathan. The most original answer wins (and will be published). Deadline today, May 23rd, 6 pm.

Discover This! is a weekly Berlin–based film comment.

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  1. Toby Ashraf on

    Reply

    Here are the winning answers to this week’s question:

    Molly wrote:

    so I can tip-toe through a kaleidoscope of visual excitement and further reinstate the idea that life is the theatrical poetry one makes it to be, while riding a soft dream of horror filled chrysanthemum tea and tasting the bitter edge of sunset hysteria amidst a crowd of winged and faceless beings whispering sweet melodies.

    Oscar wrote:

    I’d like to see Leviathan, because my favorite books are Moby Dick and the story of Jonah in the Hebrew Bible. I’m a whale-aficionado. Try to fish them every Sunday at the Schlachtensee, in Berlin (no success up to now).

    (Editor’s remark: There are no whales in this film, but you’ll forget about this after the first few minutes)

  2. Toby Ashraf on

    Reply

    HERE IS THE ANSWER OF THE FILMMAKERS TO MY EMAIL REQUEST TO TELL ME MORE ABOUT THEIR CAMERA USE. TURNS OUT I WAS WRONG WHEN I ASSUMED THE CAMEREAS WERE TIED TO STRINGS (OR ANIMALS):

    Dear Toby,

    Thanks so much for your kind words.

    We shot with DSLRs and GoPros. The bigger cameras were all lost to the sea. All but 4 shots in the film were held by or attached to a body, either ours or one of the fishermen’s. We did not tie any cameras to any animals, or the nets, or the boat, or anything, as many people have written.

    When you say “fish head” scenes, do you mean the shot of the decapitated head, being blown around on deck, before it gets swept out to sea? Or do you mean the shots of the fish being gutted? Either way, all these shots were hand-held, not attached to any string.

    The shots both underwater and in the sky with the sea birds were shot from cameras attached to an approx 5 metre pole; it was quite heavy and easy to fall overboard, so one of us would hold on to the other while they filmed to make sure they didn;t end up in the sea.

    Good luck with your writing!

    All the best,

    Lucien and Verena

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