'The Islands and the Whales': Film Review

Courtesy of PBS/POV
An enveloping look at a community whose centuries-old way of life may be ending.

Tradition is threatened by environmental and health concerns in Mike Day's Faroe Islands-set documentary.

An ethnographic doc with plenty of room for artful filmmaking, Mike Day's sometimes breath-catchingly beautiful The Islands and the Whales takes moviegoers to the remote Faroe Islands, which sit between Iceland and Scotland. There, "48,000 descendants of Vikings" are currently deciding how tightly they should cling to traditions, born of necessity and common sense, that are threatened by outside forces and environmental realities. Sensitive and gratifying to the senses, it's a far more rewarding big-screen experience than most major eco-themed documentaries; it should enjoy attention at art houses before heading to smaller screens.

The Faroes are an autonomous part of the Kingdom of Denmark, an unusual arrangement that gives them more say over certain things than their neighbors across the sea in the European Union. At issue here is their hunting of pilot whales, which islanders have eaten for a thousand years. The "grind," as locals call the hunt, is not a pleasant sight: When fishermen spot the 15- to 20-foot whales in open water, they drive packs of them into the bay; meanwhile, word goes out among locals, who rush out to the shore. As the whales are pushed toward land, throngs of men attack them with hooks and spears, turning the bay red with blood.

Animal-rights advocates from other countries are predictably appalled at this ritual. But what might actually stop it is the use of coal to generate electricity. As seas fill with mercury thanks to coal-burning, the toxin works its way up the food chain to the pilot whales. Faroe Island researcher Pal Weihe has spent years monitoring his fellow citizens' mercury levels and studying the correlation between mercury and disorders like Parkinson's disease. Though he finds it a very unpleasant task to tell locals their traditional diet endangers them, Weihe is working to wean them off whale meat and blubber.

Day listens as these arguments play out over dinner tables — as with bird-hunter Barthur Isaksen, a lover of whale meat, and his wife. Despite being a nursing student involved with the mercury study, she serves whale to her two young daughters and eats it while nursing her infant. She's just doing it less than usual.

This conversation and its attendant talk of tradition mean much more to us thanks to Day's framing of the controversy with scenes of traditional work. We ride out with Barthur on his boat; we watch the nighttime gathering of sea birds on cliffs (again, a sight that will disturb some viewers); we see traditional gatherings where townsfolk disperse shares of whale meat and celebrate the hunt.

Day's stunning images of these small, craggy islands, often trapped under thick, low-lying clouds, pair with meticulous sound recording of the wind that beats against cliffs and boats. The islanders we meet are soft-spoken and thoughtful, even when complaining about threats to their way of life.

Hell — they're even polite, in their fuzzy sweaters, when Pamela Anderson descends for a press conference and tells them they should become vegetarians. Never mind that all produce must be shipped in to these infertile islands, making vegetarianism less environmentally responsible than eating sustainably killed whales.

Explaining how much life has changed in the Faroes beyond the question of whaling, Day returns occasionally to voiceovers by an old man describing legends of huldufolk, the elves of Icelandic and Faroese lore. These "hidden folk" never mixed openly with humans, he tells us, but their presence was known. Until the coming of electricity, that is — which scared off the huldufolk even as it guaranteed that islanders would, decade by decade, live more like their urban Nordic peers.


Production company: Intrepid Cinema

Director/producer/director of photography: Mike Day

Executive producers: Minette Nelson, David Eckles, George Day, Karen Day, John Atkinson, Phil Noran, Matt Day, Niall Christie, Rachel Wexler, Jez Lewis

Editors: Mary Lampson, Nicole Halova, Mike Day, Claire Ferguson, David Charap

Composers: Antony Partos, Mike Sheridan


In Faroese, English and Danish

80 minutes