When I came up for air after seeing Leviathan by Lucian Castaing Taylor and Véréna Paravel, I, like many, was amazed by this quantum leap in filmmaking that plunges us into the gills, bulging eyes, swooping seagulls and Bosch like world of a fishing boat off Nantucket Bay.
There are no establishing shots, no interviews, no contextual information; just the purity of felt experience and an awareness of the unknowableness of nature which runs counter to the resolute anthropocentric stance of most documentaries. Deliberately disorientating, sounds emerge in the dark along with insistent textures of close-ups of scales, skin and tattooed flesh. A disembodied fish head stuck on the draining slot on the deck of the boat, an arm with a mermaid tattoo all create questions in our minds as they jostle for meaning and visibility. But the credits made me even more curious. Here are the names, written in mock Gothic text, of the fish which appeared in the film – Melanogrammus Aeglefinus, Pollachius Virens etc.
The purity of felt experience and an awareness of the unknowableness of nature which runs counter to the resolute anthropocentric stance of most documentaries
This grunge attitude made me feel I was an accomplice more than an audience, witnessing a band of filmic pirates plundering what they need from documentary to create something fresh – but also acutely aware of the limitations of language to define experience.
Somewhere up there were the words – Sensory Ethnogrophy Lab. Intrigued, I sought out more.
These musings have arisen from seeing a sample of their archive and also from discussions with Lucian Castaing -Taylor, its co- founder. He was at the Edinburgh Film Festival where Leviathan won the Michael Powell Award.
Initially from the UK, Lucian is an artist and filmmaker who started the SEL in Harvard University but is insistent on its identity as a loose community of self-confessed “recovering” anthropologists, filmmakers, sound artists, all mistrustful of the hegemony of the written word. Lucien is also director of the Film Study Centre in Harvard, started by Robert Gardner (whose Forest of Bliss provides a great lineage of poetic film observation) but wanted to create an experimental space where anthropologists and scientists collided with a creative practice. Shunning the posture of a teacher, he talks of their process as a community without a fixed notion of outcomes. Projects include films, installations, photographic displays and soundscapes.
Classes such as “sonic ethnography” encourage responses in visceral, sensed experience, to film from their bodies. In the “sensory photography” class they create a silent character portrait. The alertness this awakens is apparent in the brilliant visual world created by JP Sniadecki.
Sniadecki’s work ranges from the semi-hallucinatory Chinese fairy tale Yumen to the dazzling simplicity of People’s Park co-directed with Libbie Dina Cohn. This 75-minute, single-shot trip through a park in China conjures a whole world reminiscent of “the human realm” in the Buddhist wheel of life. Here is humanity at play – dancing, making music, talking on mobiles. The cinematography traces the textures of life – a jade necklace, a woman tucking in her shirt. Few cinematographers see whilst moving through space. Peter Mettler or Dvortsevoy manage it, and Sniadecki shares this ability as there is a profound understanding of the reason to move in the first place.
Movement is motivated by a questioning eye which finds illumination in the spaces between people. China, as exemplified by this park, seems all about the public space they share and negotiate. The park becomes like a stage, leaving me wondering not just about the individual in China today but also about how we become who we are. The choreography of the camera makes the people seem like fictionalised versions of themselves.
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