Monday, 23 December 2013

Leviathan (2012)

 Leviathan is a documentary film unlike many you'll see. There is no narration, no interviews or dialogue, no soundtrack and no text on screen. What you get is just 90 minutes of raw footage from a New England dragnet ship. Leviathan is a film that invites you to feel rather than think.

Born from the brains of two anthropologists, this art film come documentary was created by people who aren't fans of normal documentaries. Lucien Castaing-Taylor, who partnered with Verena Paravel to produce Leviathan, has said in the past how much he hates "being told what to think about something, I feel that I want to resist the authority of [a] documentarian" and as such set out to create something that doesn't tell you anything, it just shows you and lets you decide how you feel about that.

Castaing Taylor has said "Documentary claims to have this privileged purchase on a truthful version of reality but most documentaries' representation of the real is so attenuated and so discourse-based and language-based. We lie and we mystify ourselves with words. Words can only take us so far." So how do you get around the lies of language? Don't use it.

There isn't a word uttered in the entirety of Leviathan, at least not an intelligible one that matters. There are some shouts and grunts from the fisherman but they could be in any language and mean anything. It's not surprising that these film makers are anthropologists by trade; Leviathan comes off largely like a documentary about fisherman as if they were just another part of the environment, as if the filmakers were looking at humanity's role here from an outsider's persective.

The men and the ship themselves do just become part of the seascape on the same level as everything else. The hazy and trippy approach taken by Castaing-Taylor and Paravel paints a very primal picture. There are extremely long shots, often of things than many would deem pointless, taken from strange angles and focussing on unusual things. Leviathan is almost a gallery exhibition. There isn't a narrative thread running through the documentary. It's just a collection of striking images that are open to interpretation from the viewer.

And what striking images they are. Brtual and apocalyptic. A tale of blood and salt, bright lights and the black abyss; Leviathan is full of visceral and frenetic visuals. Cameras were strapped to anything that they could be: the boat, the nets, poles to be held overboard and even the fishermen themselves. Often shot from floor level or from below the waves, Leviathan could be seen, at times, to be a documentary on fishing through a fish eye lens.

The rivers of blood from beheading and gutting the fish, the churning black waves with white foam, the floodlights, the screeching gulls and the roars and crashes of the sea create a portrait of sound and fury on the water that will stay with any viewer for a long time, whether they enjoy the experience or not.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Blackfish (2013)


Gabriela Cowperthwaite's gripping documentary takes a harsh look at the impact that prolonged captivity has on both the killer whales of SeaWorld and the trainers who care for them.

Looking back over a number of decades, Blackfish tracks attacks on numerous SeaWorld trainers with a number of them resulting in the deaths of the trainers directly caused by the animals they cared for. But the blame is not laid at the feet of the people who spend every day with these majestic creatures.

SeaWorld itself is on trial in Blackfish. The company is accused of distorting information, evading animal care and capture laws and bare faced lying about scientifically proven information to both their own staff and the public. Many of the people interviewed in the film, all "former" trainers rather than any current ones, were ashamed to say how little they actually knew when training them. Killer whales don't live for around 25-35 years like they're told by their SeaWorld managers, they naturally live very similar lifespans to humans. And those curled dorsal fins, like the famous Tilikum has? Not a single documented case in the wild, but common enough in captivity to convince trainers that it happens to about 1 in 4 males.

The most emotional reactions that Cowperthwaite manages to elicit aren't about the physical health of the animals. Killer whales are incredibly intelligent animals and as a consequence have very powerful emotions. These incredibly social creatures who spend their entire lives with their families. One interviewee recalls capturing a whale calf and separating it from its family and describes it as the worst thing he's ever done or seen, despite being part of a number of violent revolutions in Central and South America.

Later there is a sequence dealing with removing a captive-born calf from his mother to ship him to another park. You might not believe that whales are all that intelligent, but when you hear the prolonged, desperate cries from a mother to a son that isn't there, you'll damn well believe that they can feel.

Emotional toll is present on most faces of most people seen here. The people who worked with the creatures have been lied to. They got into the job because they love animals so much, yet it's only through spending so much time in the system that constantly lied to them, and made them lie to the public, that they realised how much damage they really enabled.

It's an incredibly sad so much harm has come to both animal and man through places like SeaWorld. They can claim scientific research as much as they like, but seeing a huge, mystical beats performing like a dog before going to a small tank to cry, or the grieving families of a trainer who died at the hands of something they loved and you can see how wrong this whole thing is.

In the same way I'm glad animal circuses are (mostly) a thing of the past, Blackfish is a film that makes me hope my children will grow up in a world where attractions such as SeaWorld are a barbaric regret rather than a reality.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Prisoners (2013)

It seems like most things* that Hugh Jackman touches these days turns to gold (The Fountain, Les Miserables) . Now, Prisoners may be that little bit of gold atop the memorial  where your sense of happiness used to live, but it's gold nonetheless.

Prisoners is a crime mystery thriller following the abduction of two little girls. Going in knowing the premise of the film makes the opening that much harder tow watch. It's Thanksgiving and two families are celebrating together. Awful festive jumpers are out, someone's playing the trumpet badly but endearingly and the kids are playing outside. Then they're not. That's it. You don't see them disappear and it makes it feel all the more real, because to the families this sort of terrible thing happens to, that's how it feels. No dramatic chase, no breakneck soundtrack, just a hollow realisation that they're gone.

Jackman plays opposite Jake Gyllenhaal as they both try to solve the case. Jackman as the father of one of the girls who becomes increasingly frustrated with the police's efforts as time goes on and Gyllenhaal as Detective Loki leading the investigation. Together they raise one of the films main questions: how doe s man react? Does he follow his gut and emotion and take justice into his own hands, or does he try to act rational, logical and objective? Both are valid but open for criticism and these two bring a lot of credibility to either side.

Whichever side you come down on, it's one hell of a gruelling ride. Prisoners is two and a half hours long but it feels like it goes on for days. It'll take your heart and break it six ways from Sunday. There's a genuine sense of realism here that makes it all the more difficult to watch. I'm not a father, and I don't even have any young children in my life at all, but this just pulls on some instinct level fears that are hardwired into all of us; Prisoners might be a bit too much for the parents of young kids.

There are a few things that detract a little from the experience. Some things play out a little too much like the crime mystery template. There's one specific thing you'll see in the first act that is framed and lit perfectly then immediately deemed irrelevant. "I wonder if that will become important later on?" asked nobody in the audience with a shred of honesty.

Prisoners isn't the sort of thing you'll see on TV on a Sunday afternoon and watch on a whim in a few years time. You need to be able to sit down and say "Yes, I do want to subject myself to something beautifully made that'll smack my emotions around the room a bit for over two hours".

*(except X-Men. X-Men sucks)