REVIEWS: Leviathan, Manakamana (Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab)

20 08 2014

LeviathanIf you’re at all a fan of documentaries (or care about seeing the future of film aesthetics), you ought to begin familiarizing yourself with the work of the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab.  These groups of experimental filmmakers are beginning to push the form in exciting directions that are worth noticing.  They have not entirely hit their stride, but two recent features, “Leviathan” and “Manakamana,” are worth examining as potential harbingers of great things to come.

I don’t intend to give an informational survey as if you were applying for admission, especially since there are two superb write-ups in The New York Times and Boston Magazine.  But if I had to reduce their goals and aims into a single-sentence mission statement, the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab is aiming to document the wide range of experience on our planet through the use of uniquely innovative techniques.

I have a hard time figuring out what the actual first film of the lab truly was, but the first project of theirs that came to my attention was “Leviathan.”  This documentary, directed by Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, takes a look at the work of commercial fisherman in the American Northeast.  The approach to immersing us in that world is not to tell us about it, or even show it to us.  We have to feel it on a visceral level.

Paravel and Castaing-Taylor stick GoPro cameras just about anywhere they can and splice together their footage into something that often achieves hallucinatory heights.  No offense to your friends’ GoPro selfies on mountains, but “Leviathan” is the real deal in terms of utilizing the potential of these now seemingly ubiquitous compact cameras.  Simply trying to discern where the filmmakers placed the camera to achieve a given shot seems a herculean effort.

That lingering question about camera position quickly fades away, however, as we simply accept that these mesmerizing sequences of “Leviathan” lack a conventional center of gravity.  Freed from the constraints of traditional camera maneuvers, the film liberates us to allow the sensation of swimming through the water like a fish seize us entirely.

Sadly, “Leviathan” is not solely composed of these scenes.  At the opposite end of the spectrum from these formally daring scenes are portraits of the fishermen’s daily life that are far too naturalistic.  While the fishing is overwhelmingly kinetic, the still moments apart from the job are debilitatingly inert.  “Leviathan” might have been best served as a short subject documentary, taking somewhere in the range of 30-40 minutes to really showcase the brilliance of its aesthetic conceit.


The lab’s latest documentary feature, “Manakamana,” also feels like it belongs in a different format.  Though I doubt the folks at Harvard would ever deign to work in such a seemingly plebeian medium, these 11-minute scenes would make a great weekly web series.  (Or perhaps, they could be put in groups of three for a half-hour television episode.)

It’s not that the vignettes that make up the film are not interesting.  In fact, it’s quite the opposite.  The wide range of experiences that directors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez capture, simply by placing a camera inside a cable car to and from a legendary Nepalese temple, is quite astounding.

The most shocking and intriguing aspect about “Manakamana” is not what we see and hear (the highlight of “Leviathan”) but rather what we don’t.  Often times, the cart passenger is someone on their own, like an elderly woman.  Or maybe it’s a group that can’t verbalize … a cart full of goats.

Most of the time, though, the cart has at least two passengers.  And in these instances, we get a truly fascinating and thought-provoking look at human communication.  Since we lack back story on the passengers, we are left to wonder what drives them to either connect with the person next to them or remain isolated in their own world.

Why do two twentysomething girls, presumptively visiting on a tour, who seem to know each other only speak intermittently and awkwardly?  Why do an older man and a young child, most likely his grandson, not interact until the end of the cart journey?  “Manakamana” offers no answers, simply a camera pointed firmly at its subjects along with ample time for contemplation.

There is certainly some merit in watching all these stories strung together into a nearly two-hour documentary as it can cover a wider swath of the visitors.  Yet all that concentrated time spent in prolonged meditation over “Manakamana” can be quite exhausting.  If the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab is to continue pushing the form, they ought to consider looking at better matching the mode of presentation with the contents.

Leviathan: B-2stars
Manakamana: B+3stars



2 responses

5 02 2015

Interesting interpretation of Manakamana. I wonder if it’s a westerner’s bias to focus on how much or little people communicate verbally. Or, putting it a different way, I wonder if non-western cultures have the same focus on verbal communication that western cultures do. And I wonder if they ascribe their own tensions to behaviors that westerners tend to overlook… I need to travel… 🙂

11 09 2017
TIFF 2017 Review (Wavelengths): Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel's 'Caniba' - Vague Visages • Wave Faces

[…] most often hamstring their concepts by an insistence on the feature-length documentary form. When I first wrote up the group three years ago, I remarked that their film Leviathan (not to be confused with the Russian film of […]

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