You may think you know what a documentary film is — "Life as it is," as Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov once put it — but you probably haven't seen any documentaries like the ones being produced by the filmmakers at Harvard University's experimental Sensory Ethnography Lab.
I met with directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel from SEL earlier this summer, when they were in Tokyo to promote their new film "Leviathan" and to screen some earlier works ("Sweetgrass," "Foreign Parts") at the Institut Francais du Japon. I first asked them how they would describe what the SEL is when, for example, someone casually asks them at a dinner, "So, what do you do?"
"You mean, when (we reply and) they say 'What the f-ck?' " says Castaing-Taylor, with a grin. Paravel testily says she would handle the above scenario by moving to another table. I like them immediately. Castaing-Taylor has a sly, Liverpudlian sense of humor that punctuates his rapid-fire musings. Neither of the duo drift into the dry jargon all too common among academics in the arts, which may be why they were welcomed by the rough-hewn subjects of their documentaries: New Bedford fishermen, Montana cowboys and junkyard workers in New York City.