Kino-Pravda Docs: #4 – Leviathan

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Our eyes see very little and very badly – so people dreamed up the microscope to let them see invisible phenomena; they invented the telescope…now they have perfected the cinecamera to penetrate more deeply into he visible world, to explore and record visual phenomena so that what is happening now, which will have to be taken account of in the future, is not forgotten.

—Provisional Instructions to Kino-Eye Groups, Dziga Vertov, 1926

Working mainly during the 1920s, Vertov promoted the concept of kino-pravda, or film-truth, through his newsreel series. His driving vision was to capture fragments of actuality which, when organized together, showed a deeper truth which could not be seen with the naked eye.

—Wikipedia Entry on ‘Kino Pravda’

In this series, which will run sporadically and when the material presents itself, I will cover documentaries which eschew the traditional forms of documentary style in favour of a more abstract (but not necessarily poetic) presentation of its subject matter, which seems to speak on a greater level than the sum of its parts.

All sorted?


Leviathan is a tough film to watch, both in its subject matter and the way it’s presented. The film is a surreal trip to the ocean onboard a North American fishing trawler, and the sensory recordings of several GoPro’s strapped to the boat, to the chains and winches, to the crew, to the fish. Like a true fly on the wall, the camera gets everywhere, presenting angles that jar and disassociate you from feeling fixed at any point. The cameras simply watch, for indiscriminate amounts of time at various places; one of the crew members falling asleep in the kitchen area watching television, coursing through the sea alongside the ship as fish guts and waste are dumped  just ahead of it, watching hungry seagulls upside down or watching nets be hung out  from the top of the ship. Maybe watching the crew behead fish or watching a bird try desperately to clamber over a wooden board too tall for it.

This is the film you’re going to watch, for its one hour and twenty-eight minute running time. It is not the best film I’ve ever seen, nor is it the worst. I’m sure it will have its fair share of detractors for being an abstract, completely unconventional experimental work that lingers on far too long (even my patience was stretched a little thin by its last scene), and maybe the detractors are right. But that’s not what this series is about. This is about documentaries that promote that ethos that Dziga Vertov was aiming for back in the 20s, of the camera being used as a way to show the deeper truth behind what we regularly saw. And Leviathan (Dir. Lucien Castanig-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, 2012) does that, phenomenally.

In a world where most of the food we eat is seen only on our dinner plates, the brief visions of the food industry we are shown can be quite alarming. I do not just mean the mass industrialised slaughter of animals that makes up the fast food industry, I mean the inherent necessary cruelty that comes with the killing of any animal for food. Especially in the Western world, there is a strong distance between the actual production of food (the raising and slaughtering of animals), the preparation of food (i.e cooking) and the eating of the food. A chicken unfortunately, does not come pre-breaded and pre-deep fried, already separated into drumsticks, breasts and wings.

Leviathan, if anything shows the pure visceral nature of an industrial process of catching and killing fish. In a spirit more akin to body horror than nature documentary, stunning and graphic scenes of the catches of the day being prepared (read: having their heads chopped off and being gutted, or with skate having their wings hacked off with a machete) are shown close up, in detail. The knee-jerk in all of us wants to say that it’s being exploitative, just using the power of the camera to shock us, to show us what’s really going on behind our freshly battered fish and chips. But as the shot lingers, I for one began to see the mechanical efficiency one must develop when working with animals as supply. In the same way a master carpenter knows how to hammer a nail perfectly, these fisherman who work for 20 out of 24 hours a day must be masters at what they do, the fearsome nature of the job leaving little room for ethics or compassion. The sea is not compassionate, and those who take to it must do what it takes.

I am not either implicitly endorsing or condemning what they do, and neither is the film. It’s not interested in the why, merely the here, now and how. As we watch the thick industrial duty chains coming out of the deep, the clank and din of machinery in motion, ugly dissonant noises fighting against the constant thrash of the sea, the whole film ends up functioning as an abstract immersion tank (perhaps this is not a coincidence, the two directors working at Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab) as the camera becomes a proxy for watching this profoundly alien seascape. Watching a scene attached to a crew helmet where nets are violently shaken out, before returning to the scene from the top of the mast of the ship, it evokes the curious ballet-esque nature of the machines, a link perhaps most famously exploited in 2001: A Space Odyssey (Dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1968).

If anything, the best metaphor I can imagine describing the experience is like watching CCTV cameras if the CCTV cameras were tripping out. It’s a testament to countering every notion we have of modern cinema. The shots are blurry, sometimes out of focus, the camera wildly rotating and dipping into the sea, often turning the world not just upside down but around the entire 360 degree axis. The whole world of the ship becomes a globe being viewed from the outside in, filled with extreme close-ups of unknowns to us. Ominous blood-red shapes rise suddenly out of the water, only to register slowly as a net. But the net floods the vision in bold colours and the sea floods the aural senses, so that its presence becomes no less disturbing even though we’ve managed to make out what it is. At other times, the hypnotic clatter of a crew member gathering masses of clams from on deck. Again, the immersion tank, stripped of all pretenses of narrative or overarching intellectual provocations, it becomes a chamber to best convey the raw sensory flood engaged  in this inhuman landscape.

Films are often compared to dreams, and this one is no different. It’s hypnotic elements are just as likely to send you to sleep as they are to induce a strange dissonant zen state in you, so the experience you will find in watching this, I honestly cannot say. But Leviathan is a film which documents without words and language, in more pure cinema, the seafaring life of these fishermen. It also is a sensory experience which, separate from a critical appraisal or damning, is one which stays with you. And finally, it is a film which provokes awe and curiosity and strangeness and repulsion and fear and boredom and more. It expresses elements of the world film can gloss over, and by allowing us to linger in these emotions that stories often do not have time for, it creates a reaction which cut me far deeper than any traditional documentary might have.

It will not be for everyone, but its a work of cinema. Whether it provokes rapture or boredom or anger, it’s a piece of the world that wouldn’t work in any other medium, and that makes it something I appreciate here. Like the best cinema, words don’t do it justice, it needs to be seen to understood. Even the trailer doesn’t do it justice, because the whole film is an experience that requires you to be immersed, just like its camera, in the raging leviathans on the deck and under the sea.

-Alex

If you liked this, follow us on twitter here. For the rest of  the “Kino-Pravda Docs” series, click here.

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Kino-Pravda Docs: #4 – Leviathan

Kino Pravda Docs: #3 – Dreamcatcher

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Our eyes see very little and very badly – so people dreamed up the microscope to let them see invisible phenomena; they invented the telescope…now they have perfected the cinecamera to penetrate more deeply into he visible world, to explore and record visual phenomena so that what is happening now, which will have to be taken account of in the future, is not forgotten.

—Provisional Instructions to Kino-Eye Groups, Dziga Vertov, 1926

Working mainly during the 1920s, Vertov promoted the concept of kino-pravda, or film-truth, through his newsreel series. His driving vision was to capture fragments of actuality which, when organized together, showed a deeper truth which could not be seen with the naked eye.

—Wikipedia Entry on ‘Kino Pravda’

In this series, which will run sporadically and when the material presents itself, I will cover documentaries which eschew the traditional forms of documentary style in favour of a more abstract (but not necessarily poetic) presentation of its subject matter, which seems to speak on a greater level than the sum of its parts.

All sorted?

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“SURVIVOR FOUNDED • SURVIVOR FOCUSED • SURVIVOR LED”

(The Dreamcatcher Foundation’s Motto on their website, which can be found here http://thedreamcatcherfoundation.org/).

Dreamcatcher is a 2015 documentary by Kim Longinotto, about former prostitute Brenda Myers-Powell, who runs the Dreamcatcher Foundation. The aim of the charity is as follows (citing their website)

“The Dreamcatcher Foundation fights to end human trafficking in Chicago. Our not-for-profit organization works to prevent the sexual exploitation of at-risk youth and helps current prostitutes find confidence and stability beyond the limitations of their current lifestyle. The Dreamcatcher Foundation fosters confidence, courage, independence, and inner strength within young people in disadvantaged areas. Our harm reduction approach allows Chicago’s most disenfranchised young women take advantage of all of the mentoring services we offer and improve their lives through education, empowerment, and prevention.”

It’s very easy to read that paragraph and assume you understand exactly what the foundation is about. But lying behind it, is a timeless abyss of pain, sadness, degradation of the body and the spirit, and suffering. Everyone who appears in the documentary has been touched by this dark blanket, which coats and envelops their experiences since birth (some before). Babies born with crack in their system, abusive parents raised by abusive parents, sexual coercion and rape, abandonment of everyone and everything near and dear to you, including your children. The kind of stuff people not on the bottom rungs of society could only have nightmares about. The kind of stories that would make you wake up in the night in fear of your well fed, well-loved children falling prey to the “beasts of society”.

But as the film crystallizes, it becomes evidently clear that stories are the product of a much sadder fate, a lack of support, a lack of compassion, and a lack of care. The real catalyst of this comes, during an interview with a reformed/retired pimp, Homer who used to be best friends with Brenda’s pimp. As he muses on the trials that he endured as a kid which led to his distorted view of the world, he sums it all up by saying (paraphrasing) “No child is ever born a pimp.”

This is the real tragedy that lays at the heart of everyone’s story in this film, that somewhere along the line in their lives, they were failed by those who were supposed to protect them. The brutal waves of poor nurturing tumble from generation to generation, as we listen to young girls who explain they’ve been raped and molested and their parents did nothing or didn’t believe them, only to talk to those very same mothers and listen to the same stories come out of their mouths. Physical abuse which descends like a waterfall through families, filtering down from grandfather, to father to son, a son who becomes numb to abuse and sees it as the normal way of the world. The kids are not alright, and the adults are nowhere to be seen.

The way I’m writing it sounds like the film is very moralistic, but it is completely the opposite, it doesn’t demonise anyone. I am not familiar at all with Kim Longinotto’s previous work, but the film goes to great lengths to listen, in true cinema verité style, rather than dictate or present a certain case or understanding of the events. It is compassionate filmmaking, giving a voice to those voiceless, those trapped in silence for so long, because no one wants to listen, no one cares, or actively wants them to keep shtum. The camera floats in the world, no awkward air as people pretend to ignore the camera in regular documentary style, we are instead given a portrait, a window of honesty. These people do not perform for the camera, the camera is merely recording events in the most honest way it can. There’s no right or wrong way to solve the problem, the film and Brenda don’t have time to posture on what is the morally right stance on prostitution, because they’re too busy dealing with just acknowledging the silent pain these people carry with them. You’ve got to deal with the most serious injuries first.

Luckily, nothing is incurable, and Brenda  puts her entire being into promoting something these vulnerable girls and women lack, self-love, and self security. Girls who blame themselves for their rapes, who loathe themselves for being coerced into an untenable rock and hard place of poverty and slightly less poverty by being a prostitute. These women who pass through the frame are so broken, many not more than children. It comes as a shock to them, when they have taken on so much, far beyond what they should have, to relinquish their guilt and self-loathing, simply put, to be allowed to love themselves, to understand that it really isn’t their fault. It isn’t their fault that broken homes and poor social care damage the ones we seek to instinctively protect, the children. And those children grow up, and create more broken homes, like the tide coming in.

But this tide isn’t inevitable. Because what it takes to stem or change the flow of that tide is things we often take for granted. People who care for us, the basic human rights of shelter and food, a little self-love, and the expectation to not suffer violent abuses from those around us. Because the abusers often have experiences of abuse themselves, victims and perpetrators at the same time. Brenda recalls this in discussion with Homer, as she explains how she used to bring girls in to her pimp at times simply out of spite, just so he could fuck them instead of her. It’s easy to be cruel, but it takes so much effort to be kind. To be open, to be vulnerable and forgiving of life’s harshest, unjust realities.

It would also be a glaring omission to skim over the fact that almost everyone she deals with is Black. Inequality in America is still inexorably linked to race (as it is here in the UK) and the film opens up the world to someone who might have no direct experience of the black and/or female experience in this way, which is nothing short of a great social service, because anything that allows racial boundaries to be breached, crossed and simply dissolved is doing good, especially as the film goes to great lengths to show how the suffering, and the joy these women can experience is universal.

Brenda had two daughters by the time she was 16. She now helps other girl’s try not to land in the same position she was in. A girl she cares for Tameka, who is 15, becomes pregnant. The cycle continues, but it is not the same cycle, because there is Brenda, a vulnerable strong woman who cares, a woman who is strong because she is vulnerable and thus relatable. She truly has been through what these girls are going through, and so her words, her feelings are lent the authenticity and respect that most social workers could only dream of. Because when we suffer,  we look for support from people who we think have been through the same thing.

She helps to heal the part of us we often ignore, the spirit. Maybe she’s not catching dreams yet, but she’s taking the edge off of the living nightmares.

You must care and love before you can initiate positive change. She’s helping build a better future. Which I also noted in my “Black Panthers: Vanguards Of The Revolution” essay. I’ll leave you with this video essay which might help to explain this link.

-Alex

If you liked this, follow us on twitter here. For the rest of  the “Kino-Pravda Docs” series, click here.

Kino Pravda Docs: #3 – Dreamcatcher