leviathanThough the documentary Leviathan unfolds on a fishing vessel on the tumultuous high seas, this is far from the cinematic version of “the Deadliest Catch.” Directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel have created a constantly shifting, entrancing piece of abstract art. The media they use just happens to be mobile cameras, an 80-foot fishing vessel and its inhabitants going about their work with the slimy creatures of the deep, mostly set against a dark pre-dawn, cloudy morning. 

Leviathan features little bias in its depiction of its giant shipping vessel off the coast of New England, the territory where Herman Melville spun his famous tale of that other leviathan Moby Dick. But the elusive, great white whale is a mere ghost of ancient history in this film whose narrative the directors allow to flow as wild and freely as the ocean waves that surround the ship’s hull. The film has no voice-overs or interviews across its hour-and-a-half run time. The only narrative conceit arrives early on, when the filmmakers open their movie with quotations from the Book of Job 41, which clearly inspired the film’s title (read it here).

Beyond the biblical reference, the directors seem to say something rather ambivalent about harvesting the ocean’s sea life, though they employ some rather breathtaking imagery. With specially designed cameras that hang from masts and roll around on the ship’s deck,1350625625-leviathan1 the pictures captured by these cameras are born from the same randomness as the nature that created life in the primordial pool of the ocean. Sometimes it takes a while for scenes to take shape because you just do not know what you’re looking at. The human factor of control from the directors only comes in the selection of edits and how they decide to string the images together over lengthy scenes. The associative cuts arrive slow and languorous. They sometimes feel like harsh shifts, as scenes change from exterior to interior or aerial to submerged. But sometimes the scenes feel so abstract and mesmerizing that they melt almost imperceptibly from the ship’s deck to below the waves.

The key to getting these scenes under the viewer’s skin come from the long, if ever-swaying, shots. It allows the viewer to engage on a level that can feel as entrancing as the ebb and flow of the ocean itself. Besides the cuts in the footage, the directors do not manipulate the scenes at all. In fact, they never seem to use a view-finder, as impossible angles come from the randomness of letting chance direct these mobile cameras. 1920_leviathan-4Some viewers might find themselves feeling seasick with not only the motion inside the frame but also the close-ups of the bloody prepping of the dead or dying fish. The directors allow their mobile cameras to roll around the ship’s deck with fish carcasses, giving you the POV of the lamentable sea critters, as you stare into the gray eyes of the beheaded remains left on deck after a harvest.

In a cinematic world that rewards concrete narratives, some may feel frustrated by Leviathan, but if you arrive with an open mind and a curiosity for some of the most unique views of a fishing crew in action, you may find yourself properly riveted. The filmmakers do not make it easy, though. At one point they place a camera in the ship’s mess hall where one exhausted fisherman gradually dozes off to a TV showing “The Deadliest Catch.” leviathan_04The camera lingers only on his face as his eyelids gradually begin to fall to a voice-over creating drama for the unseen images of the Discovery Channel’s “reality” show. By isolating the voice-over narrator from the TV show, the filmmakers call attention to how manipulative shows like that feel compared to the purist quality of Leviathan. There’s a cut to a couple of commercials on the TV, including one about constipation, and then a return to the show’s over-the-top drama, but by then, the fisherman has checked out. It’s a witty little statement against the stagey quality of so-called reality TV and the superficiality of narratives. Leviathan is about the visceral, and you can practically smell the grotesque oozing off the screen.

But beyond the gruesome quality of the images of the reaping of sea life, the film also presents many scenes of awe-inspiring beauty. Cameras seem to somehow even make it below fishing nets as they are hauled up to the surface. Starfish trickle down and past the lenses, like some surreal interstellar trip. leviathan-stillSeagulls also harvest fish, and the cameras do not forget to capture those creatures in action alongside the men at work, creating some amazing shots of the birds fluttering for as close a view as you could ever imagine. The images throughout Leviathan will indeed hypnotize those open to film beyond literal interpretation, all the way until its final frame, beyond the closing credits, which does not forget to acknowledge the participation of the sea creatures and the moon, in addition to the fishermen.

Hans Morgenstern

Leviathan runs 87 minutes and is not rated (expect some close-up fresh catch prep). It opened in South Florida at this year’s  Miami International Film Festival, during which an early version of this review first ran. Leviathan begins a limited engagement at the Miami Beach Cinematheque on Friday, April 19, and plays there for only three days through Sunday, April 21. It then opens in Broward County at the Cinema Paradiso, in Fort Lauderdale on Friday, April 26, where it will play four days only through May 2. It may also be playing elsewhere nationwide; visit the movie’s homepage to see other screening dates.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

321339_10151418354765081_1000988295_n

The last weekend of the Miami International Film Festival ended on a much stronger note than it began. I caught up with a strange, gruesome film that was not without merit. I saw a brave choice for the award bestowed by the Miami Future Cinema Critics. I attended a second career tribute ceremony to another important director who had his start on the world cinema stage thanks to MIFF. After a closing night and awards party on Saturday night, I rushed out for one last day of screenings with daylight savings suddenly in effect. The pair of marine life-themed films were by turns powerful and poetic.

As this post goes up, so does my report for the “Miami New Times” on the festival’s tribute to Spanish director Fernando Trueba, Friday night. You can read that portion of my weekend by jumping through the publication’s logo for its arts and culture blog “Cultist”:

cultist banner

Halley

The following weekend began with the intimate but creepy home viewing of a film that had been recommended to me by both my colleague at “the Miami Herald,” Rene Rodriguez and the festival’s director, Jaie Laplante. Mexican director Sebastian Hofmann explores some twisted subject matter both thematically and viscerally in his feature debut, Halley. Halley04Shot in Mexico City, the film follows a security guard aching to quit his job at a local gym where everyone from body building professionals to obese elderly types work on their various physiques. The guard, Alberto (Alberto Trujillo), seems quite ill, as revealed early in the film. He tends to huge, festering wounds on his body that never seem to heal and even plucks maggots burrowing just below his skin.

The debut feature by Hofmann dwells on a man trying to deal with the fact he is a living corpse. He allows the camera to linger for long moments, as Alberto tries to keep everything as neat as possible in his apartment, including polishing his silverware and dusting every nook of a model train. He also allows the camera to hover on some of the most grotesque wounds the viewer might care to have to stare at on the big screen.

The film gives no explanation for Alberto’s disease, only focuses on his drive to carry on despite his rotting body.halley By not concerning himself with exposition as much as juxtapositions with society moving along with ignorant non-concern, save for a sympathetic and solitary morgue worker (Hugo Albores), the film elevates its concept beyond cruel, indulgent gore to social statement. I heard from someone who grew up in Mexico City that walking past a collapsing man in the subway with nary a reaction is commonplace, lest you believe the director is exaggerating.

Hofmann wants to work beyond pure horror for horror’s sake and rattle the complacency out of the viewer. Instead of trivializing the zombie medium, he is working it back to its social origins and the shell-shocked, post-Vietnam world of the creators behind such watershed zombie movies by George Romero. Forget Warm Bodies, this might be the most human zombie movie ever created.

Beijing Flickers and awards night

As publicized by MIFF, the awards broke down as such, which were announced at a ceremony in Downtown Miami’s historic Freedom Tower:

KNIGHT IBERO-AMERICAN COMPETITION AWARDS

Knight Grand Jury Prize: So Much Water (Tanta agua), produced by CTRL Z FILMS, Uruguay, by Ana Guevara and Leticia Jorge (Uruguay/Mexico/Netherlands), will receive $15,000 awarded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Double award winner Ana Guevara. Photo courtesy of MIFFIf the film’s sales agent, Alpha Violet of France sells the film to a US distributor within 30 days, that US distributor will also receive $15,000.   If not, the additional $15,000 will be added to CTRL Z FILMS’ prize.

Grand Jury Best Performance: The cast of A Gun in Each Hand (Una pistola en cada mano), by Cèsc Gay (Spain)
$5,000 awarded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Grand Jury Best Director: Ana Piterbarg of Everybody Has a Plan (Todos tenemos un plan)(Spain/Argentina /Germany)
$5,000 awarded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

JORDAN ALEXANDER RESSLER SCREENWRITING AWARD
Ana Guevara and Leticia Jorge for So Much Water (Tanta agua) by Ana Guevara andLeticia Jorge (Uruguay/Mexico/Netherlands)
$5,000 USD cash prize awarded by the Jordan Alexander Ressler Charitable Fund

KNIGHT DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION
Knight Grand Jury Prize:

Gideon’s Army, by Dawn Porter (USA)gideons_army

$10,000 awarded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
LEXUS IBERO-AMERICAN OPERA PRIMA COMPETITION (tie):
Solo, by Guillermo Rocamora (Uruguay / Argentina / Netherlands / France)
$2,500 USD cash prize sponsored by Lexus, official automotive sponsor of MIFF
The Swimming Pool (La piscina), by Carlos Machado Quintela (Cuba/Venezuela)
A $2,500 USD cash prize sponsored by Lexus, official automotive sponsor of MIFF
Special recognition by the jury goes to Villegas, by Gonzalo Tobal (Argentina/Netherlands/France)

UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI SHORTS COMPETITION:
Best Short Film: “Anna and Jerome”, by Mélanie Delloye (France)
$2,500 USD cash prize awarded by the University of Miami

MIAMI FUTURE CINEMA CRITICS AWARD:
Beijing Flickers (You-Zhong), by Zhang Yuan (China)

LEXUS AUDIENCE AWARD
There were two grand winners of this year’s Lexus Audience Award voted on by festivalgoers throughout the Festival:
7 Boxes (7 cajas) by Juan Carlos Maneglia and Tana Schémbori (Paraguay)

Gideon’s Army, by Dawn Porter (USA).

* * *

Beijing Flickers-thumb-630xauto-36171

Of these winners, the only one I saw during the festival was Beijing Flickers, a movie about a ragtag group of social misfits in Beijing who become friends over their shortcomings. I applaud the group of young critics who wanted to pass the award to something else beyond a too-easy nominee like, the Oscar-nominated No, which remains a fine film, as well. I had a great time mentoring Justin James of the group (read more about the program here, an article by Miami Art Zine writer Michelle Solomon).

I was supposed to catch After Lucia later that night, but it had sold out. I will be placed in contact with that film’s director, so I do not miss it. So far it has not secured U.S. distribution.

Blackfish and Leviathan

Sunday was the true last day of the festival and included a pair of movies I had heard good things about. Blackfish trains its lens on killer whales in captivity and the cover-up of tragedies involved in maintaining their display at aquariums for entertainment. blackfish stillSeveral former trainers recount their own naiveté and firsthand encounters with tragic or near tragic interactions with the animals at sea parks, as the film builds to the most current incident: the death of Dawn Brancheau in 2010 at Sea World Orlando.

The film introduces these men and women as they freely admit their own ignorance to the dangers of these animals, even though they were hired to swim with them. None have any education in marine biology. As the viewer learns more about the animals in the film, you have to wonder whether anyone who knows more about these whales than these trainers would ever enter a tiny pool with these beasts, which can weigh upwards of four tons.

No working trainer would comment in the film, much less Sea World or its spokesperson. 000_shamooThose who do comment are the ex-trainers who sometimes speak tearfully of the tragedies that changed their minds about their former jobs. Then there is the testimony of a man who actually hunted whales for captivity in the 1970s. He also breaks down in tears over the horrors he and his crew committed to capture young whales and rip them from their families. A spokesperson for OSHA, the worker’s rights group who sued Sea World in order to keep trainers safe, offers the most sober testimony against the logic of placing trainers in the water with these whales.

Balance is hard to find as no one currently working with whales comes on camera to speak in favor of these shows. But the silence of the opposing voice, depicted in a single intertitle at the end that states Sea World refused repeated requests to be interviewed for this documentary, speaks volumes. KillerWhalesBLACKFISHAs this is a co-production with CNN, one hopes the story will spread beyond the film festival.

Though some science feels missing, the film makes a strong case against the display of these wild animals for entertainment purposes. It’s easy to not look behind the bliss in the smiles and laughter of a crowd enjoying orca shows, but at what cost to not only these beasts, but to the men and women who risk their lives to “play” with them? As one talking head in the film notes, one can only hope that at some point in the future these shows will disappear as a sign of our former barbarism.

My last day at the festival ended with another marine life documentary of a very different sort: Leviathan. 1350625625-leviathan1It featured little bias in its depiction of a giant shipping vessel, as its narrative was allowed to flow as wild as the ocean waves that surrounded the ship’s hull. There were no voice overs or interviews. The only narrative conceit was establishing the film with quotations from the Book of Job 41, which clearly inspired the film’s title (read it here).

Beyond the biblical reference, directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel seem to say something rather ambivalent about harvesting the ocean’s sea life, though using breathtaking imagery. With specially designed cameras that hang from masts and roll around on the ship’s deck, the images captured by these cameras are born from the same randomness as the nature that created life in the primordial pool of the ocean. The human factor comes in the selection of edits and how they are strung together. Its associative cuts came slow and languorous. They sometimes feel harsh, from exterior to interior changes in setting, or almost imperceptibly smooth, from the ship’s deck to below the waves.

The key is to hold long shots so as not to manipulate the scenes too much and allow the viewer to engage on a level that can feel as entrancing as the ebb and flow of the ocean itself. Some viewers might find themselves a bit seasick with not only the motions but also the close-ups of the bloody prepping of the dead or dying fish. 1920_leviathan-4The directors allow their mobile cameras to roll around the ship’s deck with fish carcasses, giving you the POV of the lamentable critters, as you stare into the gray eyes of the bloated corpses.

In a cinematic world that rewards concrete narratives, some may be frustrated by Leviathan, but if you arrive with an open mind and a curiosity for some of the most unique views of a fishing crew in action, you may find yourself properly riveted. The filmmakers do not make it easy, though. At one point they place a camera in the ship’s mess hall where one fisherman gradually dozes off to a TV showing “The Deadliest Catch.” The camera lingers only on his face as his eyes gradually close to a voice over fishing for drama on the Discovery Channel’s “reality” show. leviathanThere’s a cut to a couple of commercials and a return to the drama, but by then the fisherman has checked out. It’s a witty little statement against the stagey quality of so-called reality TV and the superficiality of narratives. Leviathan is about the visceral, and you can practically smell the grotesque oozing off the screen.

There were some walkouts during the screening and others seemed glad to leave when the credits rolled. Still, a handful could not seem to get enough and remained to the very last of the film’s 87 minutes, when, after the credits and dedications, a night scene of a barely visible flock of gulls over the dark waves gave a reprise of the film’s listless quality.

leviathan_04

With that, the festival ended on a high note for this viewer. Some of these films will return to South Florida, and I shall provide a head’s up on this blog, as they see release in South Florida and distribution to other part of the US or the world. Thanks to MIFF for inviting me to attend the festival and experience these screenings on them, not to mention the chance to meet several great filmmakers, some of whom expressed an interest to return to this blog for individual profiles.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)