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Documentary and Propaganda

Filmmakers turn their cameras onto real life to make documentaries, or attempt to mold real life to an ideology through propaganda.


Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Véréna Paravel
(French, born 1971), (French, born 1971)

2012. Digital cinema.

When Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel set out to make Leviathan, they followed their subject where it took them. “We didn’t know what movie we were going to make. We never do,” explained Castaing-Taylor. “We have a lot of ideas, but the ones that pan out will be born out of our experience with the world, through ourselves and through our cameras.”1 In this case, that world consisted of a trawler (a boat rigged with fishing nets), its small crew of fishermen at their dangerous work, their catch, the sea, and sky. Adding no narration or overlaid text or music, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel used only footage and sounds gathered from the trawler to tell the story of humankind’s ancient relationship to the sea.

The project began as an exploration of the different facets of the fishing industry. Its focus was New Bedford, Massachusetts, once the world’s whaling capital and the town from which Herman Melville’s Pequod set sail in Moby Dick (1851). The novel inspired the filmmakers and gave their film its title, since Melville refers to Moby Dick using the Biblical term for a sea monster, Leviathan. They shot footage on land and became friends with the fishermen, who invited them to join a fishing expedition. That initial trip set Castaing-Taylor and Paravel on a new course. They made five additional trips out to sea, plunging their cameras into the water, passing them to the fishermen, bringing them close to dead and dying catch, and even strapping them onto the fishermen’s bodies to represent the experience of fishing as directly as possible.

This approach to filmmaking stems from their belief that the majority of documentaries and anthropological and ethnographic films lack a sensory dimension. Castaing-Taylor and Paravel strive to go beyond documentation to convey the sensation of actually being there. In Leviathan, for example, their unfixed cameras enabled them to capture the constant movement of being at sea: as the trawler, its crew, and the filmmakers lurch and roll on the stormy surface of the North Atlantic, so too do the cameras and, by extension, viewers. With hardly a steady shot, the film has made some viewers seasick. It also vividly evokes the forces that converge in pulling sustenance from the sea, capturing the fishermen’s straining bodies, the salt-bitten metal of their vessel and the sounds of its grinding machinery, and, most of all, the awesome power of the sea itself.

Lucien Castaing-Tayler, quoted in Anya Jaremko-Greenwold, “Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor by Anya Jaremko-Greenwold,” BOMB, March 1, 2013,
Véréna Paravel, quoted in Dennis Lim, “The Merger of Academia and Art House: Harvard Filmmakers’ Messy World,” New York Times, August 31, 2012,

A genre encompassing nonfiction films intended to capture some aspect of reality, often for the purposes of instruction, education, or the development of a historical record.

A term describing moving-image artworks recorded onto magnetic tape or digital formats, or generated using other mechanisms such as image-processing tools, and available for immediate playback.

A person who directs or produces movies.

1. A series of moving images, especially those recorded on film and projected onto a screen or other surface (noun); 2. A sheet or roll of a flexible transparent material coated with an emulsion sensitive to light and used to capture an image for a photograph or film (noun); 3. To record on film or video using a movie camera (verb).

The visual or narrative focus of a work of art.

A form of art, developed in the late 1950s, which involves the creation of an enveloping aesthetic or sensory experience in a particular environment, often inviting active engagement or immersion by the spectator.

The Practice (and Pain) of Sensory Ethnography
Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel merge anthropology and art in their own work and in collaborative projects in film, video, and installation. They call their approach sensory ethnography, and, in 2006, Castaing-Taylor established a place for this experiential practice when he founded the Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL) at Harvard University. The film, video, sound pieces, and photography produced through the SEL, including Leviathan, often require total immersion. For Leviathan, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel lived like the fishermen when out at sea with them, contending with heaving waves and bitter temperatures, perpetual wetness, and serious sleep deprivation. Castaing-Taylor was seasick most of the time, and Paravel landed in the emergency room twice upon returning to land. “The film became a physical reaction to the experience of being out at sea,” Paravel said.2

When America Hunted Leviathans
Though whales do not appear in Leviathan and hunting them is now illegal in America and much of the world, the history of this once-thriving industry haunts Castaing-Taylor’s and Paravel’s project. From the late 1700s through the mid-1800s, hundreds of whaling ships left American ports—most famously, New Bedford, Massachusetts—to hunt whales in the Atlantic and, after decimating those populations, in the Pacific and Arctic oceans. Crews aboard these ships sought the bones, baleen, lard, and, especially, the blubber of the animals. The ships were equipped with iron kettles, in which whale blubber was rendered into the precious oil once used in lamps, candles, and as lubrication for machines.