The Islands and the Whales (2016)

The Islands and the Whales first published by Sight & Sound, April 2018

Review: There is, in The Island and the Whales, a lot of talk of Huldufólk – a race of ancient elven creatures, autochthonous to the Faroe Islands, who lived at one with nature, but who have, along with their fellow “mermaids, sea monsters, and mermen”, long since retreated before the encroachment of modernity on the archipelago. The myth of the Huldufólk serves to frame many of the tensions that Mike Day’s documentary explores: the clash between nature and technology, and between tradition and overwhelming change. For, living in isolation, the human population of the Faroes has been hunting fish, whales and seabirds for as long as anyone can remember, both as a source of necessary sustenance (in cold, rocky terrain that will not support crops), and also as an inveterate part of their communal sense of identity. Without ever revelling in the cull, Day certainly does not flinch from the realities of a drive hunt – the boats corralling pods of pilot whales in to shore, the rush of Islanders to slaughter the trapped mammals, the bay turned red with blood, the tools used for killing and dragging and flensing – but he is also at pains to depict these hunts very much as a communal activity, in which cooperation is central, the sharing out of the catch is highly organised (and accepted by all). Indeed, as a whale is butchered, townspeople gather and sing. Likewise Day, revisiting the subject of his documentary debut The Guga Hunters of Ness (2011), shows the hunting of gannets (as well as fulmars and puffins) without sentimentality, while certainly emphasising the cooperative and community-building spirit of these hunts. We see how, in order to get to where the gannets are nesting on a perilous cliff face, each hunter must depend on 12 others to lower him by rope – and the birds are then divided evenly between the participants.

Whaling has become a highly controversial activity – something which Day acknowledges by documenting the arrival of international anti-whaling group Sea Shepherds (fronted, surreally, by Baywatch‘s Pamela Anderson, looking very out of place in this frosty environment). Yet the Faroese prove highly effective in their resistance to such groups’ attempts to lecture and even to intervene in local practices. A different kind of outside influence, however, as hidden as the Huldufolk, is doing far more damage to the Islands’ hunting culture: global pollution, flooding the food chain with so much mercury that whale meat is now poisoning the human population. A long-term study by local professor Pál Weihe shows the deleterious effects conclusively – but even when confronted with the dangerous concentration of toxins in his own body, fisherman Bárður Isaksen continues both eating blubber himself, and feeding it to his young daughters. It is a kind of denial familiar from the smokers of several decades ago, or from today’s champions of fossil fuels and unlimited consumption – which makes the present plight of these Islands a microcosm for a whole world (or, as one fisherman puts it, “a barometer for the rest of the planet”) that refuses to face up to its own devastating impacts on the environment, ruining livelihoods and even lives in its destructive wake. Meanwhile, as plankton and fish are dying out, the Islands’ migratory birds – another important food source for locals – are left with nothing to eat themselves, leading to a dramatic, probably irrevocable, reduction in their population.

Also serving as cinematographer (with a tiny crew), Day captures the Islands’ sparse and beautiful landscapes in wide shot, while coming into intimate proximity with his human subjects – Weihe, Isaksen and his family, several other hunters, and local puffin expert Dr Jens Kjeld Jensen – and letting them tell their own stories of a culture, not to mention of many species, being driven over the edge to extinction. What emerges is a nuanced dialectic on a human-driven situation – both local and global – that is no longer sustainable, as well as a portrait of a very particular community in crisis. If its title promises a fable, The Islands and the Whales shows a whole society struggling to maintain the status quo of its own mythology.

Synopsis: Faroe Islands, the present. The local community, whose identity and culture are rooted in traditional hunting for whales and seabirds, are buffeted on one side by international anti-whaling groups, and on the other by the spread of mercury pollution through the food chain and into their beloved whale meat, wreaking hidden, toxic damage also on the human populace. Denial vies with fatalism.

© Anton Bitel