The Faroe Islands sit between Scotland and Iceland in the North Atlantic. The Faroese people are decendents of Vikings. They are an autonomous country within Denmark, however, they are not Danish and speak the closest surviving example of the Viking language, Faroese. The 48,700 people living on these remote islands have historically relied on the bounty of the sea for sustenance. The sub-arctic soil creates a lack of vegetation and inability to grow substantial crops. Whale meat has been an essential source of nutrients throughout time but current issues are threatening the traditional way of living. The whaling controversy, however, is not what threatens their way of life. The actual whales themselves, having become toxic, create the choice between tradition and health.
The Islands and the Whales is a film by Mike Day telling the story of these modern challenges and how the Faroese are affected. It is a full-length 80-minute feature. Day is a cinematographer, producer and director from Scotland who met some Faroese while filming his first documentary in the islands of Scotland, The Guga Hunters of Ness. After gaining the trust of the local people, he was able to get an inside look into their way of life and connect it to themes of our growing disconnection with the natural world. This is a powerful story that shows the effects we have on the natural world we depend on, how it can change the way we live, and what ignoring the signs of this influence can lead to.
In the introduction we see dramatic shots of the landscape and terrain of the islands. Steep cliff sides, mountainous slopes leading directly into the ocean, and barren windswept land broken up by tiny towns near the shores. It becomes clear the Faroese live off the ocean with the land providing little more than places for their homes. The viewer gains the sense they are a traditional people, living their way for over a thousand years with “little change,” as one character puts it.
One of the first hunts we see is for the gannet seabirds. Dozens of men carrying very long ropes lower the daring souls over the edge to collect the birds. These are old, thick maritime ropes anchored only by the grip of men with what appear to be hand-tied harnesses keeping the hunters from falling to their death. The style and footage of this hunt exemplify the older ways of life for the Faroese and a major theme of living off what natural resources are available.
“But everything has changed here. Too often we react when it’s too late, with bird populations and all of nature. Once it’s ruined it’s already too late.”
– Local Taxidermist and Puffin Researcher
Throughout the beginning of the film we hear about the “Huldufolk”. They are mysterious hidden legends who embody what it meant to live in cohesion with the land. The ancient people believed they would appear to help if they were ‘acting right’. The ancestors of the Faroese believe the “Huldufolk” lived closely with nature and only took what they needed. As one of the narrators explains, people around today don’t have that same connection and don’t use caution when taking from nature. This ties right into the major themes of the film with both living off the land and how modern practices don’t exercise restraint, which has ripple effects around the world.
The major threat to Faorese old way of life is the mercury in the pilot whales. Mercury has been rising in the ocean as a result of human activity around the globe. It becomes concentrated and then works it way up the food chain to the pilot whale, which the Faroese consume as a major food source. The foundation of this film is how the presence of mercury, a result of human activity, puts the Faroese in a decision of adapting to presence circumstances or sticking with traditional ways. We are now starting to see how humanity’s use of nature is affecting human populations like in the Faroe Islands.
The film transitions into the old ways of life through a series of intense and dramatic footage of a whale hunt. A fleet of boats chases a pod of whales right into the waiting hooks and blades of men on the shore. Word was spread out over the islands through phone and radio of the chase, bringing many in from around the islands to take part in the hunt. A man stands in front of a crowd announcing, “40 boats took part in the hunt, with 151 men on board. On land there were 402 people.” They hand out lists assigned to each individual boat containing which whale and how much they are to receive. It is a community event where they share the rations and efforts of those who partook, showing how over generations these communities have collectively partaken in these hunts.
“Should the Faroese people stop eating and killing pilot whales? Or should we put our tradition before our health?”
– Radio Host
The anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd comes to the Faroe Islands with the open objective to stop the whaling at any cost. They have pirate logos and agendas that invoke combative and aggressive emotions. They host a discussion with a few local people on the idea of less whaling, but are confronted with coming up with an alternative. Aptly answered, one of Sea Shepherd’s representatives explains how we all need to eat less meat, as it is not sustainable for 7 billion people. But can this organization go about things in a more productive, less combative way? There is no doubt eating less meat will help the world at large, but how can we make that more plausible for the Faroese?
During a very interesting conversation between some older men, they describe how young people and others have united into whaling not because of their interest in it, but as a result of being forced into a different way of living through Sea Shepherd. This is the negative result of trying to aggressively come into a foreign place and change their way of life. Other approaches with more local understanding and education could help the needs of both sides. The film gets viewers to ask if organizations like Sea Shepherd could use their resources and money to provide cheaper, better understood, and available produce to replace whale meat for the Faroese?
“The Faroese have a strong case to accuse the outside world of polluting our seas we’ve been harvesting for centuries. You have poisoned our children.”
After Sea Shepherd attempts to stop a whale hunt, whales are still killed and the tradition continues. Throughout the end of the film examples and conversations discuss old ways of life and how certain people don’t intend to change. The doctor educating his Faroese people on mercury danger has a very difficult task explaining the negative impacts of something people can’t see or immediately feel. People are both influenced by old ways and limited sources of food.
Another major theme the end connects back to is the changes happening in nature, both as a direct and indirect result of human activity. The puffin researcher explained earlier how there has been no plankton for years, the sand eels eat plankton, and the puffins eat the eels, which has led to a massive decline in puffins. He also explains insects and other smaller creatures are disappearing, then being taken over by new species. In some Faorese’ conclusions they see the end of whaling coming soon. During the last scenes of the film a town gathers for what seems like Christmas. The whole community seems to take part in singing and dancing while gathering in the town center. This type of footage shows how connected these communities are.
With an interesting conclusion to the film, we are not left with the end choice for the father and the family we followed. We do not know the conclusions of the long-term study the doctor is conducting. We do not find out if whaling permanently stops in the Faroe Islands. What we are left with is the contemplation of human impacts on communities through natural resources, both locally and abroad. We are thinking about decisions we make now impacting our children and future generations. The film is more evidence how things in the natural world are deeply connected.
Mike Day does well to portray these ideas through the story of the Faroese. He presents opposing sides giving the audience multiple angles to consider. Through the eyes of the Faroese we are left considering our own fate as they are with their traditional way of life versus health and adaptation. As the Faroese are now, we as a world can consider whether traditional ways of living will force us into an inevitable negative outcome, or we will take the opportunity to develop new ways of living and open up a brighter future.
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Tags: conservation, Faroe Islands, Faroese, film review, Intrepid Cinema, marine mammal conservation, marine mammals, mercury, Mike Day, whaling, wildlife conservation