Few filmmakers in recent years have managed to combine formal innovation with a programmatic stance toward filmmaking quite like Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor. In the process of reinventing the relationship between their two fields of inquiry, anthropology and cinema, they have established an experimental laboratory and school at Harvard University, the Sensory Ethnography Lab. The films coming out of the lab take a decentered, nonanthropocentric approach to the visual practice of the moving image. Their camera does not focus primarily on humans as privileged actors in the world but rather on the fabric of affective relations among the natural elements, animals, technology, and our physical lifeworlds.
Their “nonnarrative epics” are meditative, trance-like journeys into unseen and alien aspects of our environments; they unearth a different order for the principles of knowledge and cinematographic language, one that is nonsignifying and nonhierarchical. Paravel and Castaing-Taylor’s Leviathan (2012), for instance, is a vertigo-inducing study of the human relationship to the sea, filmed by equipping a fishing boat with numerous cameras and devices. The decentering achieved in the film evokes mythologies of the sea, while also addressing urgent contemporary concerns regarding the place of the human in the cosmos and within a future ecology.
Paravel and Castaing-Taylor, born in 1971 in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, and in 1966, in Liverpool, respectively, are premiering two new film installations at documenta 14. In Somniloquies (2017), their camera moves over sleeping, unguarded naked bodies while a soundtrack relays the sleep talk, nocturnal speculations, and orated dreams of Dion McGregor, a gay American songwriter whose hallucinatory, salacious, and sadistic dreams were recorded by his New York roommate over a seven-year period in the 1960s. Their second installation focuses on the controversial figure of Issei Sagawa, who gained notoriety in 1981 when, as a graduate student in Paris, he murdered a fellow student and engaged in acts of cannibalism. After his release from a mental institution, Sagawa returned to Japan, and later appeared in innumerable documentaries and sexploitation films. In contrast to earlier journalistic documentaries on Sagawa, the film by Paravel and Castaing-Taylor suspends moral judgment and explores a realm that eludes classification as either “documentary” or “pure fiction,” to instead chart the ambiguous territory between crime, fantasy, and social realities, between an individual and the economy of his public persona. Theirs is a filmmaking that ultimately renders the elements of nature and culture …