One of the sparest documentaries ever produced, this film takes the audience into the very heart of mechanized food production.
Somewhere in Dante’s circles of hell, there is a place that is neither hot nor cold. It is a nether world of noise and discomfort that become so routine and so saturating that the body is no longer capable of recognizing their existence. Human interaction is muffled by the violent clanking and scraping of huge chains and gears and the very act of touching another person is denied by layers of rubber, wool, synthetic clothing and protective cloths, boots and head gear.
Fatigue is the only constant in this world, fatigue and the voice of the ship captain ordering the next catch to be drawn aboard, dumped on deck and scuppered to the decks below, eventually to become the canned and frozen seafood served up on tables throughout the world.
This is the city of “Leviathan,” the city of the giant groundfish trawler. For the passengers on board this ship, although the ship meanders over thousands of miles of ocean, it is all the same place for them. It is the machinery, the loudspeakers, the robotic brutality of the razor sharp knives dealing the final death blows to untold hundreds of thousands of living sea creatures every day to feed the cavernous maws of the world.
Filmed with a Spartan discipline that makes Lars von Trier’s Dogme 95 Manifesto look like daytime TV, “Leviathan” does contain a single spoken work or either narrative or dialogue, other than the crackling a distorted mutterings coming to the crew and audience over the ship’s broken down, corroded and vaguely sinister intercom system.
The worlds over the intercom are not be understood or obeyed, literally. It is the phrasing of the sentences and the distorted machine accent given to the words by the ships own intermediate intelligence. The message is always the same. It is a message to do what you have to do to survive, or your fate will be that of the fish you eviscerate.
This film is unique in that the soundtrack is fully the equal of the visual imagery. The two are perfectly synchronized, of course, but neither is anything you will have ever heard or seen before. Fish nets of chain that drag the bottom and scour abalone shell fish off the bottom like locusts devour a field of wheat. Pump waste tubes shooting thousands gallons of seawater and offal out the side of the ship, snorkeling, spewing and groaning as the ship’s rolling plunges them in and out of the freezing waters of the northern seas.
There is every water sound imaginable and every imaginable combination of water, fish, shell, chain, rope and winch. The only things in the film that are silent are the human workers, smothered into anonymous, rubber encased space suits that deny them personality. They are as mechanized as everything else on the Leviathan, silent as they go about their never-ending rounds.
The workers are permanently dressed in survival suits, both to protect them in case they should fall over and to protect them from the exposure on deck that is their daily bread. These suits become one with workers, eventually becoming indistinguishable from their very skin. There is no stable ground on the ship. Everything is moving all the time in the violent northern seas where there is still good fishing. Filmed off the shores of New Bedford, Massachusetts (the inspiration for Melville’s “Moby Dick”) the sea allows no rest for those taking its treasure.
This ship has it all and every day sees purse seining, crab traps and a bewildering variety of lethal contraptions that separate edible life from the sea. One wrong move and the workers on the decks become part of the catch. One wonders if they would ever be missed.
The film is dedicated to ten specific vessels lost off the coast of New Bedford, with the acknowledgement of countless more.
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Directed and Written by: Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel
Starring: Declan Conneely, Johnny Gatcombe and Adrian Guillette
Release Date: March 1, 2013
MPAA: Not Rated
Run Time: 87 minutes
Country: France / UK / USA