The Avant-Garde Documentary: LEVIATHAN (Castaing-Taylor & Paravel, 2012)

Disclaimer: This is a continuation of a collection of my thoughts for a personal film portfolio; ideas deriving from Scott McDonald, Avant-Doc (2015): ‘Introduction’ and section on ‘Sensory Ethnography’.

Castaing-Taylor & Paravel’s Leviathan offers an affectual and physical experience through documentary style, but diverts from the conventional documentary through its experimental camera work and desire to depict raw reality. The Sensory Ethnography Lab formed by Castaing-Taylor, has had such a reputation for combining this avant-garde approach with an ethnographic consciousness – aiming to refute the “truth claim” of conventional documentaries, and instead armed with a purpose to “shake us out of our dogmatic…slumbers” by representing the sensory elements of cultures and complex, multifaceted experiences.


In order to achieve this, both Castaing-Taylor and Paravel subvert dominant rules and regulations of filmmaking by elevating the importance of style over subject – immersing its audiences within its avant-garde aesthetic. As stated in the interview with McDonald, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel are much more “interested in the world” than the conforming to norms of cinematic or artistic convention. This is shown through the use of smaller DLSRs and tiny GoPro cameras handheld and attached to fishermen’s bodies, which visually and unusually convey the rocky, messy experiences on board – using different angles to submerge the audiences from the sea and onto the happenings of the ship. This, along with the colour palette of the film (yellow and red against the black of day and night), works to evocatively expose the experiences of the sea, summoning an abstract beauty to its nontraditional shot composition.

Interestingly, these unique perspectives enable the documentary to give equal weighting of animals/natural creatures to humans. This ontological favour subverts the chain of authority of human subjects otherwise seen in films and documentaries, where the fishermen of the ship are instead positioned as ‘The Other’. This is shown through the inaudible, muffling of the fishermen and the rare cut to a human subject. Such is depicted in the long take of a fisherman watching TV, where the stationary camera simply observes the human subject nonverbal like its other creatures – retracting from an interview-style which places humanity at the understanding and forefront of audience attention.

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Concurrently, the perceptual engagement of Leviathan is not only achieved through the shifts between subjective viewpoints (humans, fish, birds) – but concurrently through its intricate and wild sound design. It captures the details of this unsettling netherworld, from the nets, the winches, cutting tables – the acoustics of commercial fishing intentionally function in an imaginative and abstract manner to evoke the metaphysical and affectual sensations of this audiovisual documentary. By paying attention to these two aspects in all their complexities, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel have unearthed a strange but illuminating tone poem for its audiences.


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