Interview: Director Mike Day on his new film The Islands & The Whales

Last week Joyzine’s film correspondent Colin Lomas rhapsodised about new documentary The Islands & The Whales check out the review here.  He caught up with director Mike Day to find out more about the film

What was it that first interested you in this project?

I met Faroese sailors while I was living on my boat in Scotland making my previous film. The Faroese had a fascinating way of life, highly modern yet maintaining a local diet of seabirds and whales. This seemed to be the last bastion of a way of life that was once common across the UK and Europe, but it’s also a way of life hated by many who are against the whaling. There was a lot of misinformation about the topic online; that this was a sport, a festival & a rite of passage to become a man, all of which was incorrect. But when I got to the islands I found a deeply disturbing tale of what modern civilisation has done to the natural world. We were the bad guys regardless of what your opinion was on whaling. The seas all around the globe are now polluted primarily by our electricity generation, coal burning and gold mining so that even in this pristine corner of the world the sea life is riddled with toxins and babies are born with up to 40 times the safe level of mercury in their bodies. This discovery was grim beyond belief, and it wasn’t only in the Faroes, our own seafood can have high levels of the same contamination. So I felt that these islands and the whales had a message for us all and the blood red bays drew attention to a shocking and damning problem of our own making.

Was it difficult to gain the trust of the locals, especially the hunters? Did you meet with much resistance?

Yes in many ways, other cameras had been there under false premise before and so it took time, years, to gain the intimacy that this story needed. But like the doctor’s work in the film, these long form documentaries have their longitudinal nature as one of their greatest assets and so they do tend to be slow cooked like this!

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The film comes across surprisingly impartial for a subject with strong views on either side. Was that your initial intention when starting filming?

I suppose I went on a similar journey with the film as the audience might. Once I learnt of how polluted the seas were that was the line of right and wrong for me. To attack a small island nation for eating a sustainable local food source is subjectively right or wrong, depending on your opinion on levels of sentience in animals we eat. I wanted to leave that up to the audience, we show it for what it is. You can remain anti-whaling but be more informed having seen the film, while the whalers felt that even if they were to be condemned for their hunting in the film, at least that was being judged from a more impartial source than purely anti-whaling coverage. That allowed the whaling debate to develop locally as well. The doctor who has advised locals to stop eating the whale has had a lot of local resistance because his message has been bundled into an anti-whaling framing, the film shows that the science is accurate and therefore people could accept it without the anti-whaling debate.

So, I felt that I wasn’t going to be impartial about how much damage we, including the Faroese, all do to the natural world. In any case, the whaling, in the opinion of most Faroese, will end in the near future. One of the things that local anti-whaling activists will tell you keeps it going is the arrival of outsiders telling them how to live.

The scenes during the whale hunts will be particularly harrowing for many, how did it feel to be in the middle of that?

It’s not nice to see any animals dying and a slaughter is a brutal experience obviously. The atmosphere is however one of concentration and trying to harvest the animals as quickly as possible. It doesn’t always go smoothly, and so the men are quiet beforehand. There is a nervous air, and then there is the frenzy of trying to dispatch the whales as humanely as possible. It’s like being in a cauldron of blood, in freezing water up to the waist but kept immune from the temperature by the adrenalin, which seems primeval, that comes in such a hunt. It was of course my job to capture it, not as we see it as outsiders but to recalibrate the audience’s prejudice and to see it more through the eyes of the islanders as best we could. Thankfully we didn’t get hit by any thrashing tails.

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Technically, it looked a tough film to make; reacting instantly to a whale sighting or scrambling halfway up a cliff-face. Did you have to adapt your process during your time there?

It gave us a lot of discipline technically, we always had to be ready, batteries charged, cards transferred, and food supplies to hand in case we had to scramble and film. The night of the gannet hunt we filmed non-stop for 38 hours, then got home, transferred the footage, only to be woken at 7am by a call that whales were sighted, and then filmed for another 20 hours. We were doing this on a shoe-string budget so that adds to the challenges!

What do you think the future holds for the whale hunts in the Faroe Islands?

My previous film was about the last 10 men in Scotland, and the EU, who are permitted to hunt seabirds for food. This used to be common practice around the UK, and I think the whaling in the Faroes could go the same way. That a few in a remote area continue. Pizza is easier to make than hunting and butchering a whale so there is also that shift in the next generation. There are more options, and more Faroese have office jobs than a generation ago, plus it’s off-putting that your meat is laced with mercury and pollution from our factories.

What did you take away from your experiences there?

There was the potential for a happy ending, mercury has a half life of 6 weeks so the seas and the whales could return to normal levels if we cut emissions, and the plastic in the stomachs of the birds and whales can be avoided if governments take real action instead of weak platitudes and ban single use plastics outright rather than charge 5p a bag. But the take away for me is that it is too easy to stick our heads in the sand, and in any case it is not individuals changing their ways that will make the difference, it is government legislation forcing corporations to change their behaviour on a huge scale. We tend to act on these matters when there is no choice, but the chances are that it is already too late by then, the message of the film is, listen to these warnings now and act before it’s too late.

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What do you hope people who see the film take away from it?

I hope people who have any doubt about manmade effects on the natural world see the reality, and I hope governments take heed, and action, towards removing these threats to our own existence and that of the creatures who co-inhabit the planet with us.

What’s your next project?

I’m currently filming with cowboy poets in America, a western of sorts, and another film in Greenland, as well as a fiction feature in development.

theislandsandthewhales.com

Interview by Colin Lomas

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

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