Far more than a travelogue-esque curio investigating the unfamiliar customs of a foreign land, Mike Day’s The Islands and the Whales offers documentation of national history in the making. The film’s serenely gorgeous cinematography lets the Faroe Islands speak for themselves, deftly presenting a place of staggering natural beauty which belies the cultural turmoil it will uncover.
A subtle film with much grace, The Islands and the Whales nevertheless manages to get under the skin of the Faroese and their potentially life-changing predicament, and to establish a resonance far beyond the interests of its remote subjects. The sporadic yet well-calibrated narration is key here. It works to historicise the Faroese tradition of whale hunting and eating, yet is also morally contemplative and unafraid of (courteously) critiquing the islanders’ way of life.
The documentary as a whole is less daring. One island family – and particularly the fisherman father – gradually creep into position as our protagonists, scuppering the opportunity to present a more balanced range of views. The scenarios we see them in become ever more contrived. The film’s uncomfortable bias is most apparent when “Sea Shepherds” – hunt saboteurs – show up to protest the hunt. The activists are simplistically characterised and made to look unflatteringly ignorant about the Faroese lifestyle.
Footage of the whale hunt itself is enticingly built up to, giving the event an almost climactic set-piece feel within the doc’s structure. Though the somewhat lower-octane cultural drama is actually more interesting, this is a wise decision in terms of pace and the scene is followed by a respectful prolonged silence.
Although its bias suggests placation of the Faroese and causes the controversial issues to be underplayed, The Islands and the Whales offers implicit commentary on all of humanity’s complicity within climate change. If only its claims were a little bolder.
DIRECTOR: Mike Day
SYNOPSIS: The whale hunters of the Faroe Islands believe that hunting is vital to their way of life, but when a local professor makes a grim discovery about the effects of marine pollution, environmental changes threaten their way of life forever.
THE ISLANDS AND THE WHALES is released in UK cinemas 29th March http://theislandsandthewhales.com/screenings