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.

What is the Sensory Ethnography Lab? “It’s three words,” says Castaing-Taylor, as he walks me through that dinner-party definition of the Lab. ” ‘Sensory’, so we care about sensory experience a lot more than academics ever do, in a way that filmmakers — at their best — can do, but also that documentarians usually don’t. Documentary is so often like journalism, talking heads, people talking about their lives after the fact. So it’s to get back to some kind of pre-linguistic, embodied sensory experience.

” ‘Ethnography’ places an emphasis on long-term fieldwork, on immersion, not just a fly-by-night TV doco kind of thing where you fly in (to a location) for a week and pretend to come up with some authoritative portrait. And the ‘Lab’ is there to indicate that it’s experimental, that there’s no definitive knowledge and that we’re trying to subvert ourselves at every turn. We’re not trying to set up a new movement or new style.”

“Leviathan,” which opens at Image Forum in Shibuya, Tokyo, this weekend, is shot on a fishing trawler in the North Atlantic. It’s a movie about fishing the way Picasso’s “Guernica” is a painting about war: deconstructed and abstract, a flurry of impressionistic parts instead of any coherent whole — “hyper-subjective,” as Castaing-Taylor describes it. It’s definitely a trip, with a mind-altering musique concrete soundtrack by sound designer Ernst Karel and searing images of brutality and beauty. But the total absence of narrative or journalistic structure will definitely flummox some viewers.

It’s so abstract, it takes at least 10 minutes to realize the film begins on a ship. I jokingly tell Castaing-Taylor that he forgot to put in an establishing shot of the boat. “Actually, there’s one at the end,” he replies, “this weird sci-fi/horror kind of establishing shot from the top of the mast, but normally (that shot) would be at the beginning so you can get your bearings.”

The goal seems to be to knock you off your bearings, or, as Castaing-Taylor puts it, “to stop making sense. To get away from sense and signification and actually meaning something and just give you an experience.” But getting knocked off your bearings also seems to be true to the conditions on the ship, which Castaing-Taylor describes as “utterly overwhelming from the get-go.”

Paravel recalls “the whole experience of being trapped out there on a 25-meter-long boat for three weeks, with the deep ocean below and vast sky above and everything is dark. You lose your bearings.”

“Leviathan” captures an environment of punishing rain, industrial noise from roaring engines and grinding chains, which pull up nets full of fish whose heads are soon hacked off, leaving the deck awash in blood. There’s a truly disturbing shot from a camera bobbing in a mass of severed fish heads, which are slipping back and forth in frothy gore on the deck. “I was shocked by how long it takes a fish to die. I never thought I could feel any empathy for a fish,” says Paravel.

This shot, similar to many others, is remarkable for its point of view; the filmmakers used multiple tiny GoPro cameras (the sort that would be mounted on a football player’s helmet, for example) to capture perspectives that immerse you in the details, while almost ignoring the big picture. I suggest to the duo that their approach seems to follow the advice of music producer Brian Eno: “Remove specifics and convert to ambiguities.”

“It’s exactly that,” agrees Paravel. “We began filming with bigger, more cinemalike cameras. Everything we were filming was completely recognizable, and we were not exactly disappointed, but bored by how flat and deja vu it was. Everything that was recognizable, basically, we decided to jettison and just go for the more unfamiliar. The GoPro could do a better job of that, especially because of the body mount. We filmed mostly without looking through the viewfinder, without framing, really. The aesthetic is the lack of control and intention.”

In the end, isn’t it more art than ethnography — an aestheticized representation of reality more than a document of it?

“We are more beholden to reality than it might seem,” says Castaing-Taylor. “A lot of people think that “Leviathan” is a bunch of special effects, because of the sound design, the color, the assaulting aesthetic; that’s all at odds with documentary realism. But everything was recorded with our cameras and we didn’t f-ck with the cameras at all. We’re definitely beholden to this experience — what emerges arbitrarily — and to the messiness of the encounters.”

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.