It is an interesting moment when you find yourself sympathizing with those you’ve always considered to be barbaric, callous and cruel. Mike Day’s debut documentary, The Islands and the Whales, is the kind that invites complex kinds of considerations though. His intimate portrayal of life on the isolated Faroe Islands, where hunting whales is an ancient way of supporting life, depicts the struggles between culture, tradition and survival in order to invite more sympathetic considerations of something I had always approached as a closed book matter.
Mike Day, Scottish filmmaker and winner of the Best Emerging International Filmmaker title at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival, spent four years documenting the whale hunting communities of the Faroe Islands and recording their stories. Day presents intimate interviews from islanders who share memories of growing up on the infertile islands where pilot whales made the difference between starving and surviving. They were much more connected with nature back then, they said. For all the mystique and rugged appeal of the Faroe Islands, and regardless of how engaging and sympathetic the portrayal of their narratives, it did not stop the chill running down my spine as I watched the sea turn red during the harrowing conclusion of a whale hunt. It’s hard to see the hunting as anything other than a sport after watching 50 odd whales at the mercy of 553 islanders. The choice to omit all music after the onslaught truly intensified this horror, while the image of a toddler imitating the older men by trying to cut blubber with his toy knife fortified the reality of their entrenched cultural values.
The Islands and The Whales provokes through the idea that while we condemn those who hunt and eat whales, we know nothing of the Faroese traditions nor the perilous situations many men put themselves in to feed their families. It also introduces the idea that we are at least partly to blame, as whales and whale hunters alike are threatened by actions from the outside world. With the level of sea recourses plummeting, birds turning up with stomachs full of plastic instead of fish and animal rights groups interfering, the perceived importance of whale meat is rising among many of the islanders as their way of life becomes threatened in more ways than one. Amid all this however, the islanders are also slowly waking up to the realisation that whale is no longer safe to eat. In light of ongoing research from a fellow islander who has recorded the rising levels of mercury in islanders over the years, the Faroese are at a crossroads of having to choose between their identity and long-term health. Does this present a microcosm of our future? While we cannot feel the effects of our impact on the environment just yet, the story of the Faroese islanders offers further proof that it is time to listen and act. But as the effects of the mercury poisoning is not yet visible to everyone, this could take generations.
The documentary scored a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is hard to argue with in light of the stunning cinematography and gripping (albeit sometimes disturbing) insights into a removed way of life. Most striking is the extent to which the closed off and apprehensive community invite Day into their everyday lives and open up on such personal, sensitive issues. Is this persistent criticism from outsiders really cultural imperialism, as some islanders suggest? And if so, who are we to judge their morality when the rest of the world consumes animal products on a scale that could never compare? The documentary succeeds in highlighting how the heavy issue has more heads than is often initially thought in relation to hunting culture, and as such offers unique insight into how such issues confuse the fates of the remote islands of the North Atlantic Ocean.