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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Leviathan is a new film that's a documentary and yet not quite a documentary. It's an almost wordless, almost abstract depiction of a fishing boat heading out of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Despite its unusual structure, Leviathan has gotten rave reviews at festivals, and it's now opening in theaters. Pat Dowell has more.

PAT DOWELL, BYLINE: Sometimes, you don't know quite what you're seeing and listening to. You hear metal groaning and rasping. You see fish, gloves, tools helplessly tossed about in a roaring wind.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLANGING)

DOWELL: You see what appear to be upside-down images of birds diving for chunks of dismembered fish as they're thrown off a deck awash in blood.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS SQUAWKING)

DOWELL: "Leviathan" is a product of Harvard University's Sensory Ethnography Lab, which encourages art that explores the sensory experience of being inside a particular culture. The director of the lab is Lucien Castaing-Taylor, who directed "Leviathan" with the Lab's Verena Paravel. Their initial plan for this film was more recognizable as a documentary.

LUCIEN CASTAING-TAYLOR: We started off filming on land, thinking we were going to do a portrait of New Bedford, a sort of contrast or tension between its status as a kind of mythical city of Melville and Moby Dick, and its one-time status as the whaling capital of the world. And then it's much more hardscrabble life after the end of whaling and the decline of fishing and the decline of textile mills.

DOWELL: But once they went to sea, they ditched everything they'd shot on land.

CASTAING-TAYLOR: We realized that what was going on at sea was infinitely more interesting and unfamiliar and strange than anything we were filming on land.

DOWELL: Revealing the unfamiliar and the strange in working life, especially where animals are involved, was a feature of Castaing-Taylor's previous film "Sweetgrass" about a sheep rancher and his herd. It was shot as much from the perspective of the sheep as the humans. "Leviathan" depicts fishermen in constant repetitive work: shucking scallops, gutting fish, operating the huge steel links of the dragging net. But the filmmakers also seem to give a sensory impression of the birds and the fish. They put small cameras high up on booms and strapped them on to their own bodies to get down on the deck with the fish.

(SOUNDBITE OF THRASHING FISH)

VERENA PARAVEL: On the deck, when the fish are coming and going, it's one of us crawling into the fish.

DOWELL: Co-director Verena Paravel.

PARAVEL: Or when the camera is diving into the sea, it's one of us holding the other one over the rail and filming overboard with just a stick.

DOWELL: The little cameras recorded not only strange images, but strange sounds, says Ernst Karel, who constructed the film's sound composition and mix.

ERNST KAREL: The sound that was recorded at those moments when the camera is being pushed under water, is being held under water and then is allowed to come out of the water for a breath, it really seems like a sort of machinic gasp that comes out of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF GURGLING WATER)

KAREL: When the cameras get pushed back underwater, these deep drones and strange melodies almost, deep-toned melodies started coming out which were just uncanny.

(SOUNDBITE OF TONES)

DOWELL: Verena Paravel says she and Lucien Castaing-Taylor started out with a larger camera that they lost at sea. Their tiny back-up cameras, the kind used for extreme sports, gave the ethnographers an opportunity to involve the fishermen, who could wear the cameras as they worked.

PARAVEL: In a way, those little cameras fit our purpose of doing what we call sometimes in anthropology, (Foreign language spoken), like a shared anthropology, where everybody would participate in the film. So, those little camera was a sort of way to approach really the body of the fisherman but also the fish.

DOWELL: In fact, the credits of "Leviathan" list not only the fishermen - unidentified in the course of the movie - but also each bird species and every fish species. Lucien Castaing-Taylor says he and his co-director didn't want to make a fisheye view of the industry, but something larger.

CASTAING-TAYLOR: We still wanted to create this multiplicity of perspectives that would make the spectator rethink humanity's relationship to nature in relationship to other beings, other animals, the elements, the earth, the sky, the sea, the boat, mechanization I mean, everything that is involved in the ecology of what's going on in industrial fishing today.

DOWELL: Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel have incorporated some of the unused 250 hours of footage they shot for "Leviathan" into a museum installation. It's on display in Europe and coming to America - another space in which to re-think the interaction between humans and animals. For NPR News, this is Pat Dowell.

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