Located midway between Norway and Iceland, the Faroe Islands are a sight to behold, and home to a glorious history of folklore and hunting. Inhabited by only about 50,000 people, Mike Day’s documentary The Islands and the Whales takes a close look at how climate change has irrevocably changed the islanders’ lives, forcing them to abandon old habits and face new problems.
The Faroe Islands are jawdroppingly beautiful. Day utilises plenty of overhead shots to showcase their magnificence, surrounded by vast seas and peppered with green. But this is precisely why the documentary works so well when we zoom in on a group of pilot whale hunters, painting the waters red with the blood of the whales.
Once a proud tradition and still a staple of their lifestyle and diet, pilot whales are no longer safe for the Faroese to consume, due to increasing levels of mercury in their blood, which could lead to mercury poisoning. It’s an ongoing war that’s been present over the last couple of years, with doctors implementing routine mercury level checks in schoolchildren, and continually warning families to reduce their intake of pilot whale meat.
Faced with the dilemma of health versus history, the Faroese are left torn, and Day’s documentary effectively demythifies the harmony the Faorese supposedly share with nature. Things only get more complicated when international marine conservation society Sea Shepherd gets involved. Beyond simply failing to stop a whale hunting session, their ineptitude only further convinces the Faroese that there is no point in stopping the hunt, and reveals the ridiculousness of expecting the entire Faroese to turn vegetarian overnight, or suddenly increase their import of meat, with no actual support from the Sea Shepherds (a passer by makes an offhand comment about how their logo resembles a jolly roger, and the difficult history the Faroese have had with pirates.)
Throughout The Islands and the Whales, we’re privy to the private lives of some Faroese families, following a family who continues to eat pilot whale and their thoughts on the science of mercury poisoning, as well as a local scientist who studies the declining wild bird population. The balance of nature stays out of whack, and throughout the documentary, no matter the beliefs we held before coming into the film, are posed with the same dilemma, and understand the emotional and cultural factors these ‘children of mercury’ are to consider in their lifestyle.
The ending remains inconclusive, with no new policies set in place to restrict hunting or the consumption of meat. Tying in with the Huldufolk legends of the islands, where it is believed spirits walk amongst the people, we’re left with the haunting image of doom should the people not change their lifestyle. But with the option to change open, and with various subjects throughout the film expressing a willingness to try a change ,the survival of the Faroese life is expected, while the future remains hopeful.
THE ISLANDS AND THE WHALES will be in UK cinemas 29th March. For a full list of screenings, visit the website here