Written by Cole Wissinger
Originally posted on IndieEntertainmentMagazine.com
September 30, 2017
Halfway between Scotland, Norway, and Iceland sit the Faroe Islands. They are cold and dreary but home to about 50,000 people. These people go to work, church, and relax just as you would expect anyone to. The long-finned pilot whale also makes its home in the North Atlantic amidst the Faroe Islands. While not registered as an endangered species, they are seeing their habitats affected by pollution and other changes to the environment. They are also actively hunted by their neighbors, the Faroese people.
Contrast drives the focus of The Islands and the Whales. The opening frames bounce from a whale hunt and violent seabird catch to serene shots of the islands and the story of their people.
The main conflict of the movie is a recent discovery of increased levels of Mercury in the whale meat the people of the island are eating. Despite their awareness of the dangers of Mercury in the food they eat, most continue to eat the meat and make light of the situation. But what else can they do?
The beauty of the contrast built in the film is how each side is represented. By getting to know the people of the island in an intimate way, the viewer can understand why they continue on. They are a self-reliant people, and their hard work in the hunts keep them fed. A group of conservationists are introduced, but their plans to stop the whaling come off half-cocked and unprepared. Still, the whaling scenes they were protesting are punctuated with raw violence that can’t be ignored.
Mike Day’s direction and lens into the life of the people of the Faroe Islands is incredible. He previously worked on The Guga Hunters of Ness for BBC Scotland. Day especially focuses on the melancholy mist that perpetually hangs over the islands. It exactly matches the looming nature of waiting for the whale hunt and what the whale hunt finally coming means. These sweeping shots set the tone and are a highlight of the film.
The mist hanging over the green peaks and harsh drop-offs into icy black water seems like something out of high fantasy. This Tolkien-esque setting isn’t lost on Mike Day, who also contrasts the true story he is telling with an urban legend of the area.
The Huldufólk were believed to be elvish creatures tied in mystical ways to the land and nature. Their cautionary tale of being chased out of the land by expansion and human growth matches the all too real tragedy of pollution and the whales.
In today’s day and age, when given an opportunity to pick a side, we often do. The movie’s title The Islands and the Whales makes it seem like another Save the Whales story where you cheer for the whales and boo the Islands and the whalers.
The contrasts through the movie are important in understanding how everyone is suffering. These people and their ancestors lived off the land for years before pollution poisoned the whales and choked the seabirds. They live in a complicated world, as do we all, where neither side is in the right but all feel the consequences.