Shot off the coast of New Bedford, Massachusetts, Leviathan is a surprisingly graphic and gruesomely honest film that is not so much about the commercial fishing industry as it is the commercial fishing industry. Using eleven waterproof cameras, fishermen and filmmakers shot Leviathan during fish catches. The entire film takes place on the boat, and exhibits the horrors of one of man’s oldest endeavors in such an honest form that is likely to be unparalleled.
Leviathan begins with about fifteen minutes of shots of unrecognizable machinery and chains churning in the water and on the boat. After what feels like an eternity, the machinery comes to a stop, dumping a net-load of fish onto the boat’s deck. Fighting their deaths, the fish hop about on the boat, flopping and squirming in what to them is an excruciating and unexpected situation. The dying fish are shown on screen for far too long. It is torturous watching them wash up and down the deck of the boat, flipping around, holding onto their last breaths. A few scenes pass, and the cameraman, be it a fisherman or a filmmaker, focuses on the side of the boat, out of which is spilling the blood and guts of deceased fish. The camera switches angles, showing hundreds of seagulls stalking the boat. Later, the film shows dirty, jaded fishermen cutting up fish whilst smoking cigarettes. The fishermen throw the fish meat onto the dirty deck of the boat, where it is to be taken off when they return to shore and sold to consumers. After the fish catch seems to have been completed, there is an extensive scene of fishermen cutting off the sides of stingrays. They cut each fin off of each stingray, bag the fins and then toss the bodies onto the deck. Next, the audience sees a long and graphic scene of mutilated, bloody stingrays falling off the side of the boat, and more seagulls stalking behind the vessel, waiting for the right time to swoop down for an easy meal. The film then documents a scallop catch, showing the process of reeling in a net that has been at the bottom of the ocean, and dumping it onto the sides of the deck for the men to sort through. Among the creatures accidentally captured with the sought-after scallops, there are hundreds and hundreds of starfish, maimed and bleeding. Eventually, there is a shot of a fisherman in the kitchen under the deck of the boat. He sits in silence for about ten minutes, watching a television with a jar of mayonnaise and a loaf of bread on the table beside him. He is world-weary. He is worn out and seems to be desensitized. The only noise to be heard is the purr of the ship and the scream of the television. There is no dialogue, not just in this scene but in the entire film. The only words that are said can barely even be understood, and they are not directed at the camera.
My main thought during the entire film was that I never again wanted to eat fish that came from in or around the New Bedford area. But then I remembered that this is what people in the New Bedford, Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, and Cape Cod areas consider local catches. This is what people look forward to when they come to eastern Massachusetts in the summer. If this is local fishing, what is big-time fishing? Leviathan unveiled a lot about the fishing industry that likely no one wants to know.
I was annoyed for most of this film. The cinematography made me feel seasick, and most takes seemed unnecessarily long and graphic. In fact, about a quarter of the moviegoers left the theater before the film was out because they had obviously seen more than they had intended to see. At the end Leviathan, however, I realized how important films like this are. There is no reason to sugarcoat this kind of endeavor. There is no reason to portray this industry, or any industry, as something that it is not.
Leviathan fascinated me because of the nature of its location. New Bedford, a once prosperous whaling city, and the location at which Melville’s Moby Dick took place, is now a barren, bleak, crime-ridden city. In many ways, the striking and disturbing images in Leviathan parallel the sight of the now desolate city of New Bedford. An industry that was once considered a great endeavor, a popular and culturally accepted way to earn a living, is now a dirty and undesirable job. Despite the fact that the fishermen in Leviathan seem jaded, it is obvious that the powerful clash of man, nature, and machine affects these men in ways that people who do not pursue this lifestyle will never understand. Leviathan is a must-see because of its bold honesty, striking veracity, and unusual nature. It is a real-life peak into a trade that many of us never even think about, yet is central to the food industry.