People of a Feather: Film Review

Intriguing match of self-aware ethnography and low-key eco doc.

Joel Heath teams with residents of Canada's Belcher Islands to look at the effects of changes in sea ice.

Almost a century ago, Robert J. Flaherty began filming in the Canadian Arctic that would lead to the first feature documentary film, Nanook of the North. Aiming to capture a traditional Inuit way of life that was vanishing quickly, Flaherty presented some staged scenes as real and simplified the storytelling by inventing new names and relationships for his subjects.

Joel Heath takes a more transparent approach in People of a Feather, teaming with the citizens of Sanikiluaq, an Inuit village in Canada's Belcher Islands, and asking them to envision how their ancestors lived a hundred years ago. Pairing those recreations with contemporary scenes of daily life, he returns with a doc offering a novel perspective on environmental changes in the region. The film's tight focus and rejection of sensationalism will limit its commercial prospects, but it will play well on small screens and be welcomed by those curious about life in this increasingly challenging environment.

Heath, an ecologist, studies climate change's effects on sea ice and observes the feeding habits of eider, the ducks whose warm down locals gather for jackets. While global warming is changing the Arctic in general, changes here have a more immediate cause: Nearby hydroelectric dams store fresh water and release it in ways that disrupt the seasons' effect on ice, killing off many eider and making hunting much more dangerous for the Inuit.

Heath explains these difficulties gradually, after spending time in his neighbors' homes and garages to see how they live. He watches as they break from routine to build wooden dogsleds and other traditional implements for use in the film's recreated past -- where they trade modern parkas for feathered coats, hunt with ropes and stones, and play simple music in a freshly built igloo.

There's nothing idealized about these scenes, and while they obviously demonstrate a changing way of life, they do so in an unsentimental way. (As we cut between shots of a dog-pulled sled and a somewhat more efficient snowmobile ride, there's little doubt the latter is preferable.) Still, one can't help but worry that even what appear to be positive steps for the environment -- isn't hydroelectric power one of the great alternatives to fossil fuels? -- may wind up altering the planet in large, troublesome ways.

Production Company: International Polar Year Canada

Director-Director of photography-Producer: Joel Heath

Music: Tanya Tagaq, Cris Derksen, Curtis Andrews

Editor: Evan Warner, Jocelyne Chaput

No rating, 92 minutes