Of Fish and Foe opens on the natural beauty of Scotland’s coastline, peaceful and undisturbed, like the stuff of tourist brochure. But the mask falls off five minutes in. Of Fish and Foe is not a documentary about nature, it is not even really about fishing, it is a film all about humans, their concerns and their conflicts. Natural doesn’t really get a say and past the introduction, it is not treated with much regard, by those who reap its benefits or those who claim to protect it. This anthropocentric and exploitative perspective on natural resources becomes absurd and frustrating as the coastline and its wildlife is at the centre of all conversations but never given proper screen time in the film. A few gruesome scenes of salmon fishing and seal shooting is all they are worth. Not that the humans are treated much better.
Of Fish and Foe is infuriatingly brilliant at getting us upset with the mess that is a spat between fishermen and environmental activists in Caithness. The people featured in the documentary are not portrayed as human beings. Of Fish and Foe doesn’t aim for intimacy, it is as cold as the legal entanglement which punctuates the relationship between the backward-looking Pullar fishing family and the Sea Shepherds, self-proclaimed savers of the environment. Rather, the people in the documentary are symbols, they stand in for this fishing practice that you have heard before in a newspaper, or that discourse which populates your facebook newsfeed. The lack of empathy created by Of Fish and Foe is unsettling as it doesn’t allow room for judgement of character and bias on the basis of pleasantness or rationality. The Pullars’ homophobic comments are off-putting, yet so is the self-righteousness and lack of transparency displayed by the local water Bailiff and the environmental activists. As with a court case, we can only rely on second-hand accounts and attempt fairness. And just like a court case, this is extremely hard to achieve.
Unable to pick a side, like me, you might get frustrated with the festering breakdown of dialogue between all parties involved in the dispute. Language is a key element of the film; it is used incessantly and carelessly. People screaming over each other, fishing and legal jargon, repeated phone calls to the police, warnings, orally first, then through letters, then through the phone; it is easy to get submerged by all the opinions, facts and alternative facts constantly thrown at the camera. The dispute turns into a battle of images. Each party is constantly monitoring and recording the other, preferring the (not so reliable) truth of images to an adult exchange taking into account the other’s point of view. While the Sea Shepherds rely on shocking images to spread the truth on animal cruelty, Of Fish and Foes negates that unshakeable trust in the visual, by being the very proof of the unreliability of film. From believing in what is seen, the film slowly slides towards a mistrust of those who frame the shot; it becomes evident that most of the fighters in this political battle are media-trained. They know how to behave in front of a camera to create the desired effect and bluntly refuse to keep rolling when they realise they won’t be able to manipulate the image to their advantage. Amongst this, one can’t help but feel a little sorry for fisherman Kevin Pullar, who seems a little out of his depth in the meanders of PR. Despite his many faults, it is clear that he is the victim of his own inability to master the media.
At this point, I was thinking about ending my review on the brilliance of Of Fish and Foe, a magnifying glass on the politics of Scottish salmon fishing, which does not take a side and yet can get its viewers upset and revolted. Enters “Chairman of every non-for-profit dealing with salmon” Hugh Campbell Adamson and the anglers - fishing with rods as opposed to the Pullars using nets, and if this sounds like gibberish to you, Of Fish and Foe skillfully makes it all intelligible and engaging. Where Of Fish and Foe previously gave a voice to the Sea Sheperds, the locals, the authorities, and the fishers, it operates a shift and begins siding more clearly with the fishermen.
Adamson’s refusal to appear on camera and to defend his opinion has clearly irked directors Heike Bachelier and Andy Heathcote who become (involuntarily?) involved in the conflict. Bachelier and Heathcote report that Adamson declared that it was “morally wrong to make [their] film”. And although this went against my firm decision to conclude that “neutrality is the best policy”, I must praise Of Fish and Foe for being more courageous than I intend to be in my review. Feigning involvement and pulling back once the shooting is over would have been the easy way out, but Of Fish and Foe ultimately supports the Pullars and casts the dispute as a political tactic to reinforce the antagonist's control over the area. This is not the easy side to take after we have seen the Pullars squishing a seal’s brain out of its skull and using racial slurs in a spat with the activists. Nonetheless, it is a clever and powerful one, which doesn’t shy away from controversy and the complexity of political, social and environmental issues surrounding salmon fishing in Scotland.
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