Rethinking Tradition

In their remote home in the North Atlantic, the Faroe Islanders have always eaten what nature could provide, proud to put local food on the table. The land yields little, so they have always relied on harvesting their seas. Hunting whales and seabirds kept them alive for generations, and gave them the way of life they love; a life they would pass on to their children. But today they face a grave threat to this tradition. Director Mike Day discusses his new film, The Islands and the Whales.

ASFF: How did the experience of directing your feature debut Guga Hunters of Ness compare to your sophomore film The Islands and the Whales? Were any lessons in particular learned on the former that informed the latter?
: The guga hunters shoot was really a leap into the dark. It was my first film and I’d set sail on a boat around the west coast of Scotland to find this story. I’d grown up sailing, but even so it was fairly rough up there. It was such an unlikely tradition to have been allowed to continue, the harvesting of gannets for food, it’s illegal to hunt seabirds under EU and UK law, but these 10 men had an exemption. Wary of coverage, they hadn’t let anyone film them for 50 years, and we could only film them only if we sailed ourselves to the remote rock where they hunted. I’m pretty sure they thought we wouldn’t do it. We’d sailed the Sydney to Hobart race a couple of years before, so we felt we could make it to this rock, but those seas north of the Isle of Lewis are a bit messy in severe gales.

On the first day the hunters boat almost sank with me on it, and I needed airlifted off the stricken vessel by a helicopter, thankfully followed by the camera bag. Later on, our own boat the engine controls broke after broaching in big seas, but in the end we managed to bring back a rare glimpse of this unique world that no one had seen for 50 years, and a very brave commissioning editor at BBC Scotland, Ewan Angus, took a chance on me to make a film of it.

I think I gained the access because I wasn’t a filmmaker, I’d worked on boats, been an RNLI crewman but hadn’t been to film school, I’d been a lawyer and had studied other degrees before that, so more studying was out the question.  So, making the guga hunters film was where I learnt.

There was a sense of wonder being on this rock 40 miles out in the ocean where barely anyone has set foot, only the ruins from Celtic monks a thousand years ago remain, and 10 men piling salted gannets into a cairn. I put the camera down for a moment on top of the island and really had a sense of reverence at witnessing that moment, and that’s what I wanted to bottle and bring home for people and sharing that in the cinema with an audience has a real power

The experience taught us to waterproof gear and carry provisions for being stranded on the island and that certainly prepared me for filming in the Faroes, we ended up down cliffs on boats for days shooting on one occasion for 38 hours straight down 400ft cliffs. It also taught me to shoot for story, and not just make it pretty. In the edit we wanted to say as much with the camera, and push away being an information heavy lecture, that could have been read rather than watched. We managed over seven minutes without any dialogue on BBC primetime in that film which we only discovered when we made the transcripts.

We’d met Faroese sailors in port on that shoot as we made repairs and were invited up to the Faroes to make the next film. At that point, it was to document a surely soon to end last remnant of whaling. But when I went to the Faroes it emerged that there was more to this. It was ending there because modernity had quite literally arrived to end it by rendering their food toxic. That’s where the projects differed, the Faroes really had a story that we were directly part of, we had caused damage, we were the ultimate antagonist, the whaling, although hated by many was the messenger of an even more brutal story.

Crucially, the guga hunters also me taught the lesson of holding your course through the length of time it takes to make a film like this. Even the film’s characters and their community might not trust you fully, but to know that ultimately you are going to do right by them that was something good to learn before the five years it took to finish The Islands and the Whales.

ASFF: There is a line from the film: “Many people see us as barbarians.” Is the gift of documentary cinema that the camera lens can create a window onto other cultures to create understanding and empathy?
Absolutely, these films can be a rare machine for increasing empathy, sorely needed at this time. You can feel for the whales as much as the people in the film, and ultimately the audience itself is questioned. We live with an online tower of Babel. The islanders were called worse than barbarians, but the comments were coming from nations that have polluted so much that it’s killing more whales than the hunters. There was this disconnect, an easy ignorance and simplification, a demonization in the case of the hunters, and it gets us nowhere, two monologues yelled into oblivion, entrenching viewpoints. We have the time in a feature documentary piece like this to sit with the characters and walk in their shoes a bit and see the interconnectivity of these problems, unless you tackle that and feel that, as challenging as it might be, you aren’t going to find any solutions.

The power of the whale hunt images were always going to get attention and it’s a story that should stick in our minds, and the mass death of animals should be unpleasant to see, but unless you are vegan you are part of that slaughter.  I felt my part in all this was to tell the hunting part of the story as best I could from the eyes of the hunters to bring us into better understand how it happens and why. There was plenty myth and misinformation online about the hunt, that it was a festival, or a rite of passage, or a sport, none of which are correct. It is all too easy to make a film that demonises or simplifies things, but that doesn’t progress anything, it entrenches, and I came to this story seeing two sides with immovable positions on the whaling and wanted to move beyond that.

I felt that regardless of how you felt about that particular issue, there was something we should all unite to fight against, the pollution and the implications of it that these whales had shown us won’t just slowly end the whaling, it’s going to effect all of us if we continue to ignore it and a mind shift was required, beyond the specifics of what the contamination is, but just about our own denial and hypocrisy over our role in this tragedy.  The ability of images to linger and make an impression is what makes filmmaking so powerful, and the camera can speak so loudly, and long form documentary like this allows you to have the space for that, to let us sit in their world for a moment and feel how it is to be in another’s shoes. There is little screen time of the hunts but they are a good example of how we wanted to experience that, not sensationalised, but also not sanitised, there were a lot of lines to walk in the film, but this thought had to be very present while shooting those moments amidst thrashing tails.

ASFF: As the conversation grows on the subject of the environment and our relationship with the planet, is The Islands and the Whales part of what needs to be a wider discussion across all forms of media?
I think we need to be stirred into rebellion against the inertia we have over these issues. We can argue left and right politically but surely this transcends all that, and we all win if action is taken, we all lose if it isn’t. It shouldn’t be deemed an environmentalist issue; it’s just simple common sense.

Much of this environmentalist world is dominated by specific cause groups, all fighting for donors and patrons and that leads to competition that isn’t helpful. Politically it’s largely a mess of tokenism and inaction. So being alone with a camera gave a relatively free and privileged overview to work from. We were free to make something that hopefully all sides could draw from.

I think also the environmental movement has tended to focus on making the individual change his ways. An individual hasn’t and isn’t going to change corporate usage of plastics on the scale required, it hasn’t happened. Legislation and state intervention is desperately needed, not to look at reaching a far-off target by 2030 but to ban things rapidly that are clearly a problem and causing harm. Why wouldn’t you? That was the message of the islands, act before it’s too late, don’t leave it too long.

ASFF: The role of tradition and the need for a change which your film touches upon is a powerful and eternal theme within human culture/civilisation. Does the story of the Faroese add anything new this recurring narrative, or is it less a case of saying something new and more reminding us of ontological truths?
You can find this battle throughout time and continents repeating with different specifics. What’s new is the modern manmade element, the plastics, the coal burning, the polychlorinated biphenyls, but humans have caused environmental disaster long before any of this, the difference is we have never been seven billion people doing it.

The grandfather, Faber, grew up without roads or electricity, some islands in the Faroes only got power in the mid 60’s. There were also only two billion people on the planet when he was born and most the contaminants reaching those islands and poisoning his grandchildren weren’t even invented. But the lesson is timeless, the Faroese have a word, Bjargarøkt, which means looking after the mountain. It referred to the practice of going up to the hills to make sure the puffin burrows were in good shape and doing some maintenance if required to ensure the population would be healthy. This was of course for self-preservation, if the puffin numbers dropped the Faroese would starve, but it led to a symbiosis of sorts, and an awareness of stewardship. Now no one will starve if there are no puffins and so no one cares for the mountains, now we eat our meat wrapped in plastics and see no blood, and the meat in the Faroes, as bloody as it gets has our plastic inside it.

ASFF: Interviewing filmmaker Christoph Behl he remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film, you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process?
: I think that’s very true of my experience on this film, not least because it took five years and I was recovering from encephalitis during the first years of making the film and that’s an evolution in itself, I had to learn to walk again, I couldn’t read, or work, and for more than a year I had to put all that back together. The film was my recovery process and so there was also a personal element to seeing the dangers of losing IQ points. I made a full recovery and the film is a warning that if we don’t listen we may all suffer, the fate I narrowly avoided, of having our brains impaired. The exploration of this story, that the audience goes on, is the same wrangling through all of this that I went through, to shift away from a black and white reaction with our own prejudices and miss a bigger point, and to navigate a lot of difficult questions, and that should always transform with its revelations.

Paul Risker

The Islands and the Whales is released 20 May. For more information, click here. 

1. Still from The Islands and the Whales.