Reviewed by Rachael Kaines
A thoughtful, measured, and unbiased look at a myriad of issues facing modern man through the lens of an isolated archipelago with an unusual and controversial culture. The Islands and the Whales manages the impressive feat of illuminating a society that has, until now, largely escaped the many effects of globalisation, but they are on the brink of change. Pollution, overfishing, global warming, animal rights, and gender equality are all offered up for thought without commentary or criticism.
This documentary is set on the Faroe Islands, an archipelago situated between the Norwegian Sea and the North Atlantic. As the documentary tells you the people that live on these islands are the descendants of vikings — isolation and hardship has bred a strong culture, deeply rooted in tradition, highly masculine, and focused on hunting in a terroir where little grows. Incredible cinematography illuminates these bleak islands (Mike Day wrote, directed, and shot this documentary), and allows an insight into the harsh conditions its residents live and work under.
Rising mercury levels in the food of the islanders is a growing concern, as well as the decreasing numbers of some of the indigenous species. The reduction in plankton and sand eels means there is less fish, and every part of the food chain is saturated with mercury. The local scientist who has been heading the decades-long study into mercury levels in the residents is a personable man who finds no pleasure in trying to disrupt the traditions of the Islanders for the sake of their health.
Some of the subject matter will cause outrage to people regardless. It features the fairly graphic killing and butchering of seabirds and whales. The presence of the Sea Shepherds, a group of activists fronted in this case by Pamela Anderson, outrages and unites the population of the islands, who are at times questioning their cuisine thanks to rising levels of mercury in their food. Who is to say that the quick suffering of a whale that has lived a free life may not be comparable to an animal that has been bred and farmed in captivity its whole life.
By bringing a myriad of issues together through the unique lens of a seemingly old-fashioned culture that is getting the short end of the stick from global pollution, The Islands and the Whales manages to highlight these issues without passing judgement on the people or the culture it is observing. Truly incredible filmmaking.