In the Old Testament, the sea monster Leviathan offers an image of the staggering power of nature. Job proclaims that “any hope of subduing him is false; the mere sight of him is overpowering.” Leviathan “makes the depths churn like a boiling cauldron and stirs up the sea like a pot of ointment.”
Fittingly, the experimental documentary Leviathan begins with these references to our ancestors’ awed stance before the force of nature. The irony though is that Leviathan is no longer a sea monster who threatens humanity with his awesome power. Instead, we humans are become the monsters who threaten to extinguish all life in the briny depths.
Leviathan is set on a fishing trawler working off the coast of Massachusetts. The film challenges existing conventions of documentary by refusing conventional “voice of God” orienting narration, and instead plunging us into the tactile experience of life – and death – aboard the trawler with a visceral immediacy that is nearly overwhelming.
Leviathan is produced by Lucien Castaign-Taylor and colleagues at Harvard University’s Sensory Ethnography Lab. The filmmakers used GoPro cameras favored by extreme sport enthusiasts in order to capture the savage toll on both the sea and fishermen exacted by contemporary commercial fishing. The film extends Walter Benjamin’s pioneering arguments about film as a surgical opening up of the guts of reality, allowing viewers to travel through sight and sound through the many horrifically violent aspects of life aboard the fishing trawler.
This is one of the most radical films I have seen, and surely offers a massive challenge to existing documentary conventions. Indeed, the film asks all those who seek to represent the world to rethink the ways in which they do so. How, the film intimates, can we capture lived experience with the immediacy which is its due. Given the increasing accessibility of multimedia means of reproduction and distribution, I think all creative workers seeking to document particular aspects of the world today should be asking what new forms of fidelity are possible.
In this aim, Leviathan is a huge inspiration. It offers a potent vindication for Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, whose goal is to provide “an academic and institutional context for the development of creative work and research that is itself constitutively visual or acoustic — conducted through audiovisual media rather than purely verbal sign systems — and which may thus complement the human sciences’ and humanities’ traditionally exclusive reliance on the written word.”
I think that the written word still has an important role to play, however. It’s very useful, for example, to juxtapose Leviathan‘s brutal corporeal account of the obliteration of life in the Atlantic with recent reports on the parlous state of the oceans. According to the International Programme on the State of the Oceans, the world’s oceans are facing a multifaceted degradation that threatens a mass extinction unlike anything we have ever seen. Multiple stress factors – including pollution, warming, acidification, overfishing and hypoxia – are driving a degeneration of the oceans that is occurring far faster than experts anticipated. If not curbed through serious changes in our collective behavior, the oceans will undergo an extinction event on the order of the greatest mass extinctions in the planet’s history.
When Leviathan rises up, the Bible tells us, the mighty are terrified, and retreat before his thrashing. If the sea monster was once a symbol of Nature’s awesome power, we live in times when we have appropriated the awesome power of nature. Yet if we extinguish live in the seas, we will ultimately kill ourselves. It is our current unsustainable capitalist system, which seeks infinite growth on a finite planet, that should truly be defined as the new leviathan. We should be filled with fear and trembling in the face of this monstrous power which we have created, and which now threatens to undo us.