In the 86 years that the Academy has been handing out awards for cinematography, only twice has a documentary managed to appear among the nominated films. (The first, With Byrd At The South Pole, actually won; the second, Navajo, did not.) In all honesty, the exclusion of nonfiction fare in this category makes sense. More often than not, documentary is an informative medium, not an expressive one. Even in the greatest of docs, the camerawork is chiefly functional; with apologies to the elegant compositions of a Claude Lanzmann or a Frederick Wiseman, what the filmmaker is capturing tends to matter more than how they’re capturing it.
Leviathan, however, is no ordinary documentary. In fact, so thoroughly does it eschew the usual nonfiction trappings—talking heads, onscreen text, dates, names, any specific piece of expository information—that some have resisted even categorizing it as documentary. The filmmakers themselves have likened the movie to science fiction, or horror, presumably because of the nightmarish feeling of dislocation it invokes. Others have labeled it experimental, which is as good a way as any to describe the movie’s stretches of visual near-abstraction and formal adventurousness.
Shot on a fishing vessel off the coast of Massachusetts, Leviathan seems more interested in capturing the primal power of nature—and the perspective of both the workers and their daily catch—than it does in conveying hard data about the North Atlantic fishing industry. Directors Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, who study and teach at Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, initially intended to spend some time on dry land, too, but jettisoned that plan once they reviewed some of the astounding footage they shot at sea. Larger, more conventional cameras were eventually left behind, as the filmmakers switched to GoPro—small, waterproof models that were durable enough to handle the extreme weather conditions aboard the trawler. Once the directors embraced new, unfamiliar technology, the approach became more tactile.
The result is some of 2013’s most awe-inspiring imagery and dynamic, inventive camerawork. Paravel and Castaing-Taylor plunge their lenses into the murky, treacherous waters and among the wildlife flopping about on the deck of the ship. They attach cameras to the heads of the fishermen, allowing us to see this terrifying world as the workers do, and strap them to wooden poles that are thrust below the crashing waves. Some of the shots achieved through these techniques seem to defy physical logic. One moment, for example, finds the camera bobbing above and below the surface of the water, its lens pointed skyward at a flock of screaming seagulls; it then switches position mid-shot, rising out of the drink to capture the avian scavengers from an aerial perspective. I thought more than once of I Am Cuba, the 1964 Soviet drama whose amazing tracking shots seemed to explode the possibilities of camerawork.
Traditionally, however, Academy voters are less impressed by pure technical ingenuity—no matter how awe-inspiring—than by picturesque beauty. The Oscars tend to privilege postcard prettiness above all else, with nominations betraying a preference for classically graceful compositions and splendiferous lighting. Leviathan is sometimes gorgeous, but it’s just as often “ugly;” its visual textures can be harsh, with Paravel and Castaing-Taylor embracing the imperfections of digital to enhance the sense of disorientation. There are times during the movie when it’s difficult for viewers to orient themselves—to know which expanse of blackness is the water and which is the sky. Leviathan removes any familiarity in an environment that’s already unfamiliar to most, deliberately obliterating clarity to evoke a sense of terrifying immersion. It makes real life look unreal, mostly as a means to capture what it might feel like to be out there, at the mercy of Mother Nature. That’s a radical achievement, especially for a nonfiction film.
Come March 2, there’s a very good chance that the great cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki will finally win an Oscar, for his stunning, multi-minute tracking shots in Gravity. Frankly, it’s overdue. Lubezki’s work with Terrence Malick and Alfonso Cuarón is beyond reproach. But for all the talk of Gravity as a game-changer, its use of technology to forge a new path forward is no more impressive than Leviathan’s. In fact, there’s even a chance that the latter—which shows what filmmakers can accomplish with affordable commercial cameras and without huge Hollywood budgets—will have a greater impact on the future of the medium. Leviathan makes our real world look as scary, as unknowably alien, as outer space. And it does so for less money than what the producers of Gravity likely spent on craft services. If that’s not award-worthy, I’m not sure what is.