Sunday 8 April 2018

Baywatch: "The Islands and the Whales"

What do we know of the Faroe Islands? Geographically, that they're the stepping stones between Scotland and Scandinavia; in the footballing arena, that they've become, along with San Marino and Liechtenstein, the whipping boys of many a World Cup and European qualifying campaign. Beyond that, not so much, which is why The Islands and the Streams, a brisk documentary primer, might come in unusually handy. Director Mike Day senses he could pique our interest by filling the screen with the islands alone: craggy, fog-topped promontories that might appear entirely uninhabitable were it not for the odd lush valley his helicopter shots catch out of the corner of their eye. We're being exposed to the elements here, and there's something equally bracing about the human activity Day captures, right from his opening sequence: hundreds of locals charging down to a bay to hack the whales swimming into Faroese waters into meat, and turn once-blue waters blood-red.

In other words, we're deep into hunter-gatherer territory - sailing out on boats whose crew think nothing of picking up a puffin to serve as a starter - and part of what makes Day's film so fascinating is its apparent anticipation of the response some of its material seems likely to provoke. Judgier viewers, sitting in the warmth of a privilege-lined mainland cinema with box of aioli-drizzled popcorn to hand, will surely rage: who are these barbarians, who seem to think they own this place, and any poor creature who seeks to swim around or fly over it? (The scenes of whale hunting can't fail to remind us of the sorry fate of the dolphins in the 2009 doc The Cove: Day amps up the high-pitched squeals of distress on the soundtrack, and trains his lens on young men whose faces have been splattered with blood.) Equally, though, the locals can be heard maintaining that this is a necessity, given the islands' scant agricultural possibilities, and a tradition that was going on well before we came along. 

What the film bears witness to is a process of self-regulation, a subtle shift in thinking that may have greater long-term impact than any more vocal protest movement. It turns out that mercury levels are increasing in the North Sea, and in any fish to be found there - Day has the footage of concerned medical professionals to prove it - and even some of the community's elders have started to worry about the effects of overfishing. The world is changing, at a faster rate of knots than ever before, and the Faroese, as a part (however remote) of that world, are having to adapt. From the halfway mark onwards, every onscreen conversation over kitchen tables piled high with seared blubber, every press conference, each radio phone-in Day eavesdrops on forms a continuance of a dialogue already running through the engaged viewer's mind. Is this a sustainable way of life? And, even if so, is it a healthy one for anybody?

There is a pronounced split between the oldtimers - whom hunting has allowed to live long and prosper - and the islands' youngsters, who seem more inclined to hear out any arguments; and then there are those caught in the middle, like the thirtysomething fisherman - one of those self-same puffin-pluckers - whose test results give him pause to wonder what he's putting on the table, and in his children's mouths. The conflict is palpable even before a group of environmentalists (spearheaded by, of all people, pretend lifeguard Pamela Anderson) arrive with an eye to blocking the hunt, one of those surreal stunts that tend to generate more noise than consensus or enlightenment. The latter, like mercury poisoning, tends to come as a slow and haphazard creep: the film is, in the final analysis, an education for subjects and audience alike, using its time on the islands to reassure those who would sit in easy judgement, and show the Faroese realising for themselves that something's got to give.

The Islands and the Whales is now showing in selected cinemas.

1 comment:

  1. This is not a movie to watch with people you'd feel awkward with regarding penises, sexual innuendos, and scantily clad people. However, when I watched this, I thought it was a good, easy-to-watch movie. No torturous violence or sex. And although cheesy, there were parts of humor that I actually laughed at. I liked that they made the Efron seem dumb, let the "average" nerdy kid get the hot girl, and that they, in all honesty, watch32 movies did a pretty good job of sexualizing both men and women equally. I also like that they paid homage to the old cast. vexmovies I enjoyed the movie!