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.
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.
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.
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 email@example.com, 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.