Film Catch-Up: Leviathan / The Act of Killing

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Leviathan, the new experimental documentary from Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Verena Paravel, is a chronicle of the commercial fishing industry set somewhere in the North Atlantic. Completely immersive, the film literally plunges into a chaotic system of both murk and majesty – only the final raising of theater lights allow the viewer to resurface, gasping for air. Alums of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel omit exposition in favor of documenting in the most literal sense, and the full impact of what they’ve captured is hard to do justice in words. There’s no real narrative here – no information about crew names, histories, or relations – only lurching mechanical process.

This is a film that doesn’t just grab you and toss you around – it gargles you and spits you back up, gleefully disturbing your sense of gravity with each successive scene. It opens with a disorienting prelude of total darkness that’s slowly punctuated by pinpoints of light. From an intimate perspective close enough to get the full impact of the plentiful guts and grime – images so vivid they threaten to emit an actual odor – the filmmakers reveal the vessel’s complex machinery. The ability to disarm the viewer with each new scene is amazing – like a series of miniature puzzles, the camera continues to begin with a part of the process, to then slowly reveal its context. Deriders of the so-called shaky-cam are likely to be seasick within minutes, but the craft is impeccable.

Castaing-Taylor and Paravel transport the viewer into every nook, cranny, and puddle aboard the boat, establishing the constant heave, pitch and roll of the environment. Always in flux and at the mercy of the elements, the boat represents the sheer insanity that such a system should exist in such overwhelming conditions. As the film gradually hypnotizes in its frantic ballet of abstraction (we’re talking borderline Brakhage) – inquiries of “how’d they do that” slowly fade as the system engulfs us. Meanings can be read into the film’s stance on human labor, mortality, and nature, but to the film’s credit they feel tangential to its raw power. It’s a world of severe brutality – as we’re reminded by frank depictions of fish beheadings – but also one in which there’s a job to do.

Castaing-Taylor and Paravel’s previous film, Sweetgrass, was a similarly astute look at a group of shepherds embarking on an exhaustive journey through a remote mountain range. Just as that film stumbled when attempting to incorporate a human perspective, the least interesting parts of Leviathan are those that focus directly on its crew. Kept in the margins for much of the film, their humanity is stunted by a role as cogs in a vast system. When a grizzled crewmember nods off while watching a scene from Deadliest Catch, it feels like a smug admonishment of that series’ glamorization that’s not necessary in this film. It’s the boat itself, in concert with the surrounding ocean that becomes the lifelike organism.

In light of such modern tools as Google Earth, it’s incredible that part of our own world can seem so downright alien. The film gives us a gutturally insightful look at the operation of a deep sea fishing vessel in the most absorbing way possible. With the technology available to them (in this case small, portable DSLRs), Castaing-Taylor and Paravel push the boundaries of documentary filmmaking with a stunning fluidity that mirrors the ocean itself.

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While Leviathan explores the terrifying power of natural elements, Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary, The Act of Killing, plumbs the stunning depths of human evil. The film centers around a historical atrocity – the overthrow of the Indonesian government by a violent military coup in 1965 – that has shocking resonance even fifty years later. Disturbingly, the perpetrators of a genocide that claimed as many as 2.5 million lives have never faced retribution for their acts, and many have remained in power ever since. In its fascinatingly bizarre conception, the film unravels the psyches of those serial murderers as they grapple with their own legacies.

Oppenheimer focuses on two men, Anwar and Herman, who self-identify as gangsters, which in their language translates to “free men” – the first of many deluded justifications they make for their actions. Concerned with having their story told with accuracy to future generations, the pair plot to film a series of re-enactments to highlight what they see as their own brutal heroism. Oppenheimer tracks the making of that film, and captures the stark absurdity in the unassuming replication of past terrors. Anwar unabashedly describes how they used to scalp tickets to theaters showing American gangster films in the sixties for a populace eager to embrace a glamorized vision of vigilante justice. There’s an imbued irony in the circuitous path they’ve taken – from fetishizing film violence, to realizing it, to mimicking it in a film of their own – and the structure is enthralling to see play out.

Anwar is happy to casually recreate, and even boast about his favorite method of killing – after all, as another subject notes, “war crimes are defined by the winners.” These men can afford to be frank when they’re under no threat, but as they’re forced to confront their pasts depicted in their own film, a self-realization begins to seep in. First it’s the thought to include passages of humor (achieved by dressing in drag) and romance, as the actual unrelenting violence might prove to be overkill. Then, when they attempt to enlist townspeople to portray communists for their movie, they’re met with reluctance and even fear. Though Anwar and Herman want to provide a history lesson, showing the whole truth could present them with an “image problem,” as one leader puts it, which opens them up to even further questioning of how to reconcile their actions.

A debate between sadism and cruelty boils down to more than just semantics, it reveals the casual inhumanity that these men have exhibited for over fifty years. Despite their creeping guilt – Anwar has trouble sleeping at night and is plagued by bad dreams – Oppenheimer shows that remorse is still in short supply. This is a nation where political rallies are completely filled with people bribed to be there, where nobody in the elected party really believes what they’re campaigning for. Everyone’s just play-acting – they’ve constructed a system of fakery and allowed it to fester, creating a counterfeit culture. The Act of Killing doesn’t just present the literal deaths of millions, but also the spiritual death perpetrated in its aftermath.

Incredibly rich with provocative questions, the film features one stunning sequence after another – it’s hard to believe some of these conversations actually happened. The system they’ve constructed is as complex as the deep sea fishers of Leviathan, and equally insane in its functionality. Both films are unrelenting in their exploration, and provide us with a look inside worlds we might never have dreamed of. They’re two of the best examples of what documentary film can offer — revelatory, astounding, and important.

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