WATCHING a film about pilot whales being bloodily slaughtered may be too much for some to stomach.
But gory and shocking though it occasionally is, The Islands And The Whales is a truly stunning documentary that I implore you to watch.
Painstakingly filmed by Mike Day (some debut) over the course of four years, this is far more than a piece of work that heaps shame on those who live in the Faroe Islands and rely upon whale meat as part of their staple diet.
The documentary raises question after question. Do we have a right to challenge these proud Islanders about their somewhat peculiar way of life when alarmingly our relentless pursuit of globalisation and economic growth is slowly poisoning the food chain?
Should it be us, rather than the Islanders, who change our way of life – before we end up destroying the planet?
Gruesome though the slaughter of whales is – and it brought tears to my eyes – we are quite happy 99 per cent of the time to allow awful farming and slaughterhouse practices to carry on behind closed doors. Are we any better for sanitising slaughter?
The evidence of man’s planetary destruction is visible on the Faroe Islands. The high mercury content of the whale meat they hunt for is resulting in high mercury levels among the population – a fact highlighted by Doctor Pal Weihe who despite widespread suspicion from the Islanders has been compiling evidence that the population is slowly being poisoned. IQs are threatened and the risk of dementia is increasing. He carries on his studies despite the fact that many Islanders want him to stop his work. A dent in his car, maybe caused by a shotgun, suggests some are more agitated than others.
The destructive impact of man is also seen in the sea birds (gannets and fulmars) that the Islanders catch – either with big lacrosse-like sticks from the side of their boats or by being lowered down a cliff face by rope and culling all before them (a guga hunt). In one scene, we also see boatmen shooting birds as if it is sport. Plastic is now regularly found in the stomachs of the gannets while bird numbers are declining. A result of subtle changes in the eco-system (less plankton) and the greed of some Islanders. Puffin numbers are down sharply.
Day does not provide an overlaying commentary on proceedings. He lets the Islanders – fishermen young and old, young mothers and the doctor – do all the talking. Some talk about the Huldufolk – elves – which they say have abandoned the islands because of creeping modernisation.
It is for the viewer to make their own judgement and weigh up the rights and wrongs. This is all done against the stark beauty of the 18-strong islands that make up the archipelago. Sheer cliffs. Unspoilt scenery, much of it untouched by the dirty paws of man.
One of the most powerful moments in the film is when Pamela Anderson strolls into town on behalf of Sea Shepherd, the anti-whaling charity. It is all rather embarrassing, displaying the charity’s lack of understanding about anything to do with the Faroe Islands – the difficult topography and climate making farming nigh impossible and a reliability on the sea a necessity.
Should the Islanders stop their infrequent whale hunts and just rely upon food imports brought in by container ships? Should they all become vegetarians?
The protesters later unsuccessfully attempt to stop a whale hunt which sees pilot whales herded into a bay and gruesomely slaughtered with instruments that cut the spinal cord. The whales are then carved up, distributed among those who participated in the hunt and the meat carted away in wheelbarrows for freezing. Shocking. All other words fail me.
The Islands And The Whales is a sombre and brave piece of film-making. Tradition versus modernism? Globalisation versus isolationism? Cultural imperialism? Good versus bad?
Questions, questions, questions. The only one the film answers with precision is that we are all destroying planet earth. Things must change.