The Islands and the Whales (2016)

The Islands and the Whales is a stunningly beautiful, unobtrusively shot documentary by Mike Day with a narrative that takes us into the lives of real people caught between tradition and global environmental change in the remote Faroe Islands.

The Canary in the Mine

by Alexa Dalby

The Islands and the Whales

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

The Faroe Islands is an archipelago of bleak crags of rock in the far North Sea, an autonomous part of Denmark, home to around 40,000 people. The traditional way of life of the Islands’ close-knit communities is under threat. With no agriculture, they have always depended on hunting in the seas around them for survival. Schools of pilot whales provide the whale meat and blubber that’s their traditional diet, as well as the unsuspecting sea birds that they scoop up from the sea. But because of pollution of the sea and its fish, the whales they eat are now are toxic with mercury – and as a result the islanders’ staple food is slowly poisoning them. The Islands are a global barometer – if, remote as they are, they are so affected by pollution, how much worse is it where land and people are more concentrated?

Director, cameraman and cinematographer Mike Day fills the screen with harsh, shocking and stunning beauty – the sea, the catch piling up on the busy quayside, the rocky crags, the bleak, barren land, the shore running red with the beached whales’ blood as islanders join to harpoon and harvest their catch, contrasted with the warm, homely cosiness of their snug houses; loving family life and the communal coming together in traditional costume for their ring dance. Day concentrates on a small group of characters to tell his story: a single fisherman; a young family of fisherman, nurse and three young children; and the scientific and medical officer, a Faroese himself, who is trying to warn them of the dangers in store.

Brutal, wrong and environmentally damaging it may be to kill whales, Day’s film gets to the heart of why whales have been and still are so important to the Faroese way of life over centuries, so much so that we feel we have got to know the people and counterintuitively sympathise with them when they are invaded by a boatload of environmentalists led by Pamela Anderson who set out to thwart their latest cull. To them, this is cultural imperialism, even though deep down they know that, no matter how much they struggle against it, they will have to accept that change is inevitable and their traditional way of life will disappear in future. The documentary brings us close enough to them to make this a cause for sadness. They know they are losing their ancestors’ closeness to nature and losing their whales will also mean a loss of self-sufficiency and make them more dependent on imported food, with the unspoken uncertainty as to how sustainable this will be in the long term.

The Islands and the Whales is a very involving and thought-provoking small window into remote islands that embody crucial issues that affect the world as a whole.

The Islands and the Whales is released on 29 March 2018 in the UK.

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