Part eco-documentary, part sociological examination, Mike Day’s The Islands and the Whales uses the controversial whale hunting tradition of the Faroese as a diving board to plunge headfirst into the isolated, North Atlantic community of the Faroe Islands. Through an intimate, fly on the wall approach, Day follows the everyday lives of a community whose existence on the windswept archipelago, defined by its rugged, raw landscape, is at a crossroads as they struggle to keep up with a fast changing world, whilst holding onto the deep seated traditions of their ancient culture.
The Islands and the Whales begins with an introduction to the Huldufólk (“Hidden folk”), in essence elves, believed to be large in stature, with dark hair, grey clothes and who possess a strong dislike for electricity – or modern progress. They are a common feature in Scandinavian folklore, but taken rather more seriously in the island communities of the Faroe Islands and Iceland, where in 2013 the Supreme Court halted construction on a highway because of the possible disturbance it might have caused to a Huldufólk habitat. But, these mythical creatures and the Faroese belief in them represents and provides an explanation for the community’s deep connections to nature, tradition and culture.
In an environment where little can grow, the Faroese have existed for centuries on a diet largely composed of fish, whale and seabirds. But, as a by-product of industry, fossil fuel consumption and globalization pollutants have resulted in increased amounts of mercury in food sources. As Pàl Weihe, head of the Department of Health, fights to make aware the dangers of consuming mercury rich food and environmentalists lobby against the practice of whaling, The Islands and the Whales brings to light the interwoven complexities of the modern world, where culture and environment do not sit independent of one another, but overlap.
With breath-taking footage of the rugged, traditional practices of a seafaring nation captured over the course of four years, Day succeeds brilliantly in observing. The film removes itself from pushing an agenda and simply watches. It refrains from trying to answer questions, instead allowing the surrounding complexity to slowly come to light. Weihe talks openly about the uphill struggle of trying desperately to discourage his countrymen from eating mercury rich whale, whilst recognizing the importance whale meat has in Faroese culture and tradition. A puffin conservationist explains that the decrease in the islands’ puffin population is less to do with puffin hunting and more with the absence of plankton in the surrounding ocean waters, a result of fossil fuel consumption. Journalists hound environmental organization, Sea Shepherd, over the sustainability in shopping from supermarkets where food is imported from New Zealand and balk when representative, Pamela Anderson, tells the population to “be vegetarians.”
It is a nuanced document, which candidly explores the harsh realities of climate change and conservationism and their intersection and conflict with a society’s culture and traditions. As one Islander observes, “maybe we should be a barometer for the rest of the world”. With this documentary, they surely will be.
THE ISLANDS AND THE WHALES is released in UK cinemas 29th March. Click here to find your nearest screening.