It’s night, and 400 miles off the coast of Europe, the Faroe Islands rise up from the sea into imposing, jagged peaks. A a line of human figures is strung-out along one of the cliffs. In the darkness their silhouettes could almost be mistaken for the very birds whose necks they have come to ring.
This bleak image is from director Mike Day’s spell-binding new documentary, The Islands and the Whales, about the challenges faced by self-governing archipelago.
In this particular scene, a group of men are hunting nesting seabirds to take home, sell and eat. You would think the birds would fly away from their glaring head-torches, but they stay – perhaps in a vain attempt to protect their soon-to-be orphaned chicks.
The pursuit would appear to support the Islanders’ already blood-thirsty reputation, gained for the slaughter of pilot whales.
During these annual hunts the community uses speedboats to herd whales on to beaches, where the creatures are killed for their meat. The practice is regularly denounced by conservationists and is described as “barbaric” in one WWF blog.
But Day’s documentary is more insightful than that. His extensive interviews with the island community – from hunters at home with their families, to festive gatherings in the town square – reveal a people both stuck in their traditional ways and deeply attached to them, even at risk to their own health.
The full tragedy of this situation is revealed through the eyes of one young couple and their two kids. The parents are committed to hunting whales and seabirds – and have eaten them as long as they can remember. Yet the mother also works as a nurse at the local hospital, and is aware that medical advice now deems their mercury content to be unsafe for human consumption.
As the film unfolds, the struggle to find balance within the islanders’ own bodies is thus mirrored by the need to find a wider balance with nature itself.
Tales of the islands’ mythical “huldufolk” (wise, elven people who hide in the shadows) are used to evoke a time when humanity’s impact on wildlife was less destructive; a time before mining polluted the seas with mercury, before hunting equipment became remorselessly deadly, and before the burning of fossil fuels pushed the global climate into dangerous overdrive.
The islanders are shown to be both perpetrators and victims of this change; they would prefer to hunt their meat for free, than pay for expensive, mass-produced imports.
Rather than condemn their passion for hunting, the film thus laments humanity’s much wider loss of connection to the natural world. And as the film’s final scenes zoom out above a swirling, dancing crowd of people, there is a sense that by bringing this shunned community into the light, Mike Day has pulled us all a little further out of the darkness.
The Islands and the Whales is screening in selected UK cinemas from the 29th March