Scenes of what is deemed to be animal cruelty court controversy like few other topics are capable of in cinema. Particularly in documentaries that reveal to us the ugly and inhumane side of our species, forcing us to consider that the capability to inflict pain on a living creature is inherent within all of us; whether we do it intentionally or through wilful ignorance of our actions.
In 2013, Black Fish brought hate campaigns against a company previously thought to be somewhat conservationist after stomach churning scenes of families of orca were devastated. The few that held back the tears were doing so through gritted teeth as young wild killer whales were seen to be abducted by hired crews and forced to live in captivity. Four years earlier, The Cove caused controversy not only for depicting Japanese dolphin hunting, but for doing so with an alleged lack of neutrality in the way that information was presented. We live in a post Blue Planet II world, where every bit of plastic waste thrown out makes you feel as if you are personally taking to the sea, Captain Ahab style, to ram some cling film down the throat of the nearest baby pilot whale.
The coral reefs are grey and dead, a puffin chick’s first meal is a ring pull, and soon there will be more coffee cups bobbing around the ocean than there is fish. We, as a species, suck. Although, make sure that when you do “suck”, you don’t do it through a straw.
And now there is Scottish director Mike Day’s upcoming documentary, The Islands and the Whales.
In a harrowing scene that is sure to be remembered for years to come, we idly observe the emotionless and ritual slaughter of scores of pilot whales by a fishing community in the Faroe Islands. The marine mammals are forced into shallow waters where the waiting Faroese kill them in upsetting and distressing scenes.
But the death is not without purpose, as The Islands and the Whales attempts to explore. The best documentaries are usually the ones where the storyteller takes a step aside and allows the pictures and the characters to tell the audience in their own words what’s happening, but invariably they are the hardest to make. Day masterfully structures his documentary in a fairly linear fashion to show and avoid telling how this community live, why so many of the island’s population take part in or allow the mass slaughter to happen, and present objective arguments for and against the act in the islanders’ own words.
We learn how the tradition has been a part of this small community for around 1,000 years, and has largely been sustainable, but environmental pressures elsewhere in the world are contributing to the decline in the species. We see evidence presented by a doctor following 30 years of research suggesting that contamination of the sea is increasing the level of mercury in the whale’s blubber causing a degree of brain damage in those that eat it. We witness activists protest the hunt with arguments that amount to little more than “it’s bad to kill”. Which, to be fair, is morally right; but when every part of the whale is used in the same way most other European countries would use a cow or a pig, or farmed salmon, and when little realistic alternative is presented, is it fair to say what is right and wrong?
Would the material and environmental cost of importing replacement food sources, meat or vegetable, really outweigh the supposedly sustainable fishing?
What The Islands and the Whales isn’t, is an answer to any of the questions it posits. And that’s what’s so refreshing about it. Day doesn’t cast any judgements about the Faroese people, nor does he condemn or condone their actions. The documentary acts as a window into a culture that the audience more than likely have little knowledge about. Make your own decisions if you choose, or enjoy the extraordinary scenery on display, but don’t expect a guided tour leaning one way or the other.
The landscape lends itself perfectly to the cinematic treatment, and director/cinematographer Day does it justice. It’s certainly no surprise that it was nominated for BAFTA Scotland’s Best Single Documentary, and Best Documentary at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Day said: “This film took five years to make and I’m very excited to now bring this film to UK audiences on the big screen.
“The majestic landscapes and sounds of the Faroe Islands deserve the full cinema experience, and the story the islanders and the whales have to tell us is strikingly relevant and vital.”
Majestic being the imperative word. The Islands and the Whales is as beautiful to look at through its 80 minute run time as it is thought-provoking. If you get chance to see this film on the big screen upon its theatrical release on Thursday (29th March), then absolutely do it. You won’t be disappointed.
THE ISLANDS AND THE WHALES is released in UK cinemas 29th March http://theislandsandthewhales.com/screenings
Check out the trailer below and let us know what you think if you get to see the film.