In 2008, Pál Weihe, Chief Medical Officer of the Faroe Islands declared whale meat and blubber to be unfit for human consumption. After 22 years of continued medical studies on the local community, increased pollution in the surrounding oceans had pushed mercury levels in the native pilot whale to dangerously high levels. To say this was a controversial declaration in an archipelago based very firmly around the consumption of whale meat is a vast understatement and struck deep in the heart at the very notion of being Faroese.
Director Mike Day – who shot the film almost singlehandedly – spent four years in the Faroe Islands, gaining the trust of a community who have long been on the negative side of media coverage, to investigate how this announcement has affected the local people.
What is most refreshing about Day’s craftmanship here is his impartiality. For a subject matter which spans environmental and ethical issues, animal rights and marginised cultural beliefs, a level of bias is a difficult to avoid without diluting the impact, yet Day gets it exactly right. By simply showing the events and giving even-handed interviews with both parties, he brings out doubts from both sides as to the validity of practices – some whale hunters freely admit the tradition is outdated and they haven’t eaten the meat for years, while animal activists stammer around queries about whether it would be ok to replace the whales with cows.
This approach opens up the way for personal issues from some of the more vehement traditionalists on display too – and this is where Day’s patience and gained trust really reaps results. Shortly after a particularly horrific and brutal whale slaughter scene, one hunter is shown on the brink of tears after discovering his children have dangerously high level of mercury in their system – something that can reduce cognitive skills and cause Parkinson’s disease – while passionately attempting to justify their cultural right to eat the meat. His wife – a local nurse – sits beside him, herself torn between her love for her husband’s beliefs and her children’s wellbeing. It’s heart-breaking to see such an absolute inner turmoil brought about by total conflict of his two most treasured beliefs.
It is also worth noting that while many of the elder members of society point to the modern Faroese’s lack of respect for nature – the Faroes didn’t have a road until the 1950s – some of the younger traditionalists prefer to blame the rest of the world for the pollution; a very fair judgement perhaps but interesting that their own increased electricity and petrol consumption is not considered a potential issue too. Perhaps there are certain things all humans are doomed to repeat.
The Islands and the Whales is a beautifully shot documentary which highlights the appalling and irreversible results our lifestyles are having on the ocean. More emphatically though, it is brilliant in its personal depiction of an existence which many will find outdated yet is a sobering wake up call to the same antagonists who shy away from the reality behind their commercially censored meat consumption.
THE ISLANDS AND THE WHALES is released in UK cinemas 29th March http://theislandsandthewhales.com/screenings
Director: Mike Day
Running Time: 81 Minutes
Certificate: N/A (although contains slaughter scenes may upset some viewers)
Review by Colin Lomas