UK Release Date: 29th March 2018
Runtime: 81 minutes
Director: Mike Day
Synopsis: An exploration of the Faroe Islands and the tradition for hunting pilot whales that butts heads with modern moral thinking around whaling, as well as exposing the Faroese people to mercury poisoning that is slowly killing them via their food.
The people of the Faroe Islands live in something approaching total isolation. The 48,000 inhabitants of the 18 islands in the North Atlantic Ocean, between Scotland and Iceland, still live a largely similar lifestyle to that of their Viking-descended ancestors, albeit with the occasional modern convenience. Scottish documentarian Mike Day explores this unusual community in The Islands and the Whales, which pits centuries-old tradition against the oncoming storm of globalisation and activism.
Day introduces the audience to the Faroese people as they carry out the daily grind of catching and killing boatloads of seabirds, while expressing their desire that a “whale hunt” happens soon. For generations, a seafood diet of gannets, fish and the luxury of whale has sustained them and an early scene sees whaling described as “an integral part of the nationhood” of the Faroe Islands. Now, though, a professor has discovered a clear correlation between whale meat and high levels of mercury in the bodies of Faroese people, posing serious health risks. Meanwhile, the arrival of American animal rights activists sees their hunting way of life questioned and opposed.
The Islands and the Whales is an admirably clear-eyed, mostly balanced take on the issues at play when it comes to the Faroe Islands and its people. Day hands equal weight to the clearly outdated, traditional viewpoints of the Faroese – one elder emphatically describes the poisoning claims as “bullshit” – and those who represent a more modern perspective. This detachment only serves to make the movie’s most impactful moments more shocking.
This is most notable in the scenes depicting the local residents clubbing together for whale hunts. Sailors who locate a pod of whales team up to force them towards the shore and, when they become washed up, hundreds of waiting residents stab and beat them to death. Day depicts the hunt from an outwardly impartial perspective, with the sense of chill and distance only serving to intensify the shock of seeing a crowd of post-hunt islanders covered in the fresh blood of the animals they have just plucked, lifeless from the equally gore-soaked waves.
The film’s central thesis pits the weight of tradition against the imperative of modern advancement. Day’s Faroese subjects are stubborn in their desire to maintain their way of living, but they also acknowledge that globalisation is taking a toll. The pollution that’s infecting their pilot whale meat stems originally from pollution elsewhere in the world, with the Faroese playing the part of the canary suffocating to death in a toxic coal mine. Day follows families as they are tested for mercury and shows the heartache of those who remain ignorant and defiant even as they put their children at risk of death or serious illness.
At just 80 minutes in length, The Islands and the Whales is a concentrated blast of documentary that is often as much a horror movie as it is an educational experience. Stunning shots of the islands and their surrounding seas make for a compelling and almost mythical environment, amplified by voiceover focused around the connection between the Faroese people and the legendary Huldufólk, who protect the natural world. Day tells the story with real power, shining a spotlight on a complex issue that is more ambiguous than many outsiders likely feel.
Pop or Poop?
Mike Day’s impressive, oddly beautiful documentary The Islands and the Whales is a complex dissection of a tough issue, pitting tradition against modernity. The characters he focuses upon are stubborn and driven by a desire to protect their way of life from the rest of the world, but Day is keen not to demonise these people as uncomplicated villains. He recognises the difficulty of the debate, seeking to educate as well as shock and intrigue.
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The Islands and the Whales will be released into UK cinemas on March 29. Click here to find out where you can find your nearest screening.