Setting the scene among the darkened waters and jagged cliff faces of the Faroe Islands, The Islands and the Whales tells the fascinating story about a conflict between health and tradition in this small island community. With a long history of hunting whales and seabirds for survival, the local people now find the realities of the outside world are catching up with them and becoming increasingly harder to ignore. A crash in seabird populations, increased efforts from animal activists and above all, oceanic pollution in the form of dangerously high levels of mercury acquired from whale meat now threaten their very survival. As we follow the lives of families who have over generations become accustomed to this way of life, the islanders are now faced with a tough decision, whether or not to accept change.
The film opens with breathtaking shots of craggy islands shrouded in mystery, the perfect backdrop for tales of myth and magic. As it happens we also have the first of many references to the huldufolk, mythical beings who once lived at one with nature but disappeared from the islands with the arrival of roads and lights. This leads us smoothly into the story of the local people, “descendants of vikings”, so engrossed in tradition and folklore and yet at the same time increasingly disassociated from it.
In such a harsh environment, early settlers on the Faroe islands had no choice but to harvest the few resources they had available to them in order to survive. They hunted fish and whales, and collected seabirds in their thousands from nest sites. Now these practises have moved far beyond the necessity they once were and into a tradition woven deep into this community that is seemingly isolated from the rest of the world.
With no accompanying voice-over, the documentary is told entirely from the point of view of the local Faroese people. With no overpowering agenda dominating the screen we are able to feel closer to the families as we enter their home and see how tradition brings together this isolated community and eventually see them increasingly come to terms with the realities of a changing world they now face.
One character we are introduced to is local chief medical officer, Pal Weihe, who has been conducting long term experiments on adults and children to see the effects consuming the mercury contaminated whale meat is having on development. Growing up with the whale hunt, Weihe offers a unique view as someone who is both accepting of the science but also sympathetic with the difficulty making such a dramatic change is going to have in the community he is very much a part of.
With our knowledge of the intelligence and complex behaviour of pilot whales, I began watching this documentary feeling nothing but the hope that this community would realise the hugely negative impact of their actions. I was surprised to come away with a strange feeling of empathy and understanding that a way of life so wrapped up in tradition is not a simple thing to just sweep away.
I found The Islands and The Whales to be a documentary that very much challenges the raw black and white ideology we often possess when it comes to how we view the natural world. Nevertheless, this could also be a warning to the rest of us of things to come and one day we may have to similarly make increasingly difficult choices about how we choose to live and interact with our planet.
THE ISLANDS AND THE WHALES is directed and produced by Scottish director and cinematographer Mike Day (Aleppo’s Fall, The Guga Hunters of Ness) and co-produced by Henrik Underbjerg and Stefan Frost. Nominated for BAFTA Scotland’s Best Single Documentary and Best Documentary at the Edinburgh International Film Festival the film has gone on to win numerous awards including: Hotdocs Emerging International Filmmaker Award, DOC NYC Grand Jury Prize, Best Documentary Phoenix International Film Festival and the Princeton Environmental Film Festival.
The Islands And The Whales will be released in UK cinemas on the 29th March.