Mike Day’s stomach-churning documentary shows how traditional survival on earth is fundamentally changing
Scottish director Mike Day’s first feature documentary The Islands and the Whales (2016), winner of Canadian Hot Docs Emerging International Filmmaker Award, screened recently as part of Unorthodocs.
Before seeing the film, I felt the title was vague and seemingly generic. The Islands and the Whales, I mused, might as well be Man and Nature. It turned out that wouldn’t be inappropriate: set in the Faroe Islands, a small archipelago under Danish jurisdiction located between the Norwegian Sea and North Atlantic, the film tells a larger, more fundamental story. Not only does it focus on centuries-long traditions of hunting pilot whales and seabirds on the Faroe Islands, but it also shows how the islanders’ interactions with nature are forced to change due to external factors. It points to a bigger picture of the environmental pollution of globalisation, making us reconsider the relationship between nature and the entirety of humankind, not just 50,000 Faroe Islanders.
Unorthodocs programmes showcase internationally acclaimed documentaries that haven’t been broadcast on British TV, which some see as “an admonishment to UK broadcasters to up their game” and to encourage more independent feature documentaries. It was great to see The Islands and the Whales on the big(ger) screen, to be able to appreciate the bird’s eye view of the islands majestically emerging from the ocean, conveying a sense of both isolation and the permanence of nature, as well as adrenaline-fuelled sequences of night-time bird hunts on the cliffs (Day’s crew were the first outsiders to witness the gannet hunt.) The film, created over four years in three different locations, was mostly self-shot with a crew of no more than five. The director told the audience, via Skype, that the biggest challenge was that the crew, just like the contemporary Faroese whalers, had to wait for the whales to appear, never knowing when it will happen. “It was an endurance piece,” said Day, “but I’m glad we hung in there.”
There are three threads running throughout this mostly observational film. First, a man narrates in Faroese the traditional agenda of men living in harmony with nature, telling folk legends of Huldufólk (elves) and revealing breath-taking shots of the Faroese landscapes. The observational footage speaks of tradition and timelessness, showing us thousands of people singing and dancing in the main square, wearing traditional costumes, as if caught in a time bubble. This thread presents whaling and marine birds hunting as the only ways for the Faroese people to survive on the mostly barren, wind-swept archipelago.
The second thread, running in the background as we are mostly shown the Faroese perspective, is the modern narrative of humanitarianism and progress, which translates into chastising the Faroe Islanders for their barbaric hunting practices and calling on them to catch up with the ‘civilised’ world. Much of the film shows men hunting. They catch birds into the nets, wring their necks and throw them onto ever-growing piles of feathered carcasses; and they hack pilot whales corralled into a small bay until the water turns bright red, which looks deceptively like a beautiful sunset until you realise it is not. Depending on who is looking, these sequences either affirm traditional paths (it’s easy to imagine the whalers in the same bay hundreds of years ago) or constitute visual evidence for indictment in the court of animal rights defenders. Day confirmed that gaining the contributors’ trust was especially difficult as activists harangue them. In the film we see members of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS) trying to stop the whale hunt. The locals laugh about them behind their backs, protesting their customised Jolly Roger logo, which brings back bad memories (“We had some trouble with pirates,” says a middle-aged Faroese man). Pamela Anderson, who joined SSCS on that trip, predictably becomes a source of numerous mildly sexist, Baywatch-related jokes.
The third thread, trumping the other two, narrates a public health emergency. We learn that, due to pollution of the ocean waters, pilot whale meat contains so much mercury that, for people who consume it regularly, there is a risk of Parkinson’s Disease and delayed brain development in infants. A local doctor, understanding how difficult it is for his compatriots to part with the old ways, tries to make them reduce their intake to two meals a month (and zero for pregnant and nursing women). Up to that point, the scenes of whale skinning and meat chopping might have been stomach-churning for sensitive viewers but now, the dark, dense whale meat acquires an even darker meaning. In a loaded, nauseating scene, a young Faroese mother encourages her young child not to eat “just vegetables”. Watching the kid methodically chew whale meat, the viewer is already aware of the family’s wait for the results of mercury level tests, which come back far too high for the father. The same food that has traditionally nourished the islanders, ensuring their survival in harsh conditions, is now slowly killing them. Even the most traditional Faroese men start to understand that their lives need to change, not because they are unfit for the modern world, but because that world has polluted the oceans. The Faroese used to defend their whaling and bird hunting as sustainable, but the ecosystem has changed beyond recognition. Birds today have their stomachs filled not with fish, but with garbled plastic bags. A local puffin expert says that at the current rate, in 20 years, all Faroese puffins will be gone.
Watching the film can be unbearable for those who oppose killing and processing animals for food, irrespective of the circumstances. Magali Pettier’s brilliant documentary, Addicted to Sheep, which includes a graphic scene of lambing on the small family farm sparked similar reactions. Although Day gained the trust of the hunters, I do not see his documentary as necessarily defending their practices or taking their side against Pamela Anderson’s pirate crew. For meat-eaters and vegans alike, the resounding message of the film is spelled out by one of the characters (here translated in English), “If the food in the Faroes is being contaminated from the outside, then maybe it should be a barometer for the rest of the planet.”
The Islands and the Whales was screened at the fourth edition of Unorthodocs, a series of documentaries curated by Dartmouth Films in London’s Somerset House. Unorthodocs continues until April 2017.
Photo Credits: Intrepid Cinema