Review: ‘The Islands and the Whales’

Hot Docs 2016

3 mins read

The Islands and the Whales
(UK/Denmark, 82 min.)
Dir. Mike Day
Programme: International Spectrum (World Premiere)


Fans of the Canadian feature Angry Inuk will want to see its international peer The Islands and the Whales. While Angry Inuk depicts the plight of the Inuit as their sustainable seal hunt comes under fire from the international community, The Islands and the Whales chronicles the fight of a small community in the Faroe Islands, a remote island country just north of Scotland, as the traditional hunt for pilot whales draws intense scrutiny from activists—including Pamela Anderson. As with the seals of Angry Inuk, the whales of The Islands and the Whales provide ample food and resources for a community that lives in a landscape in which farming is difficult. Both docs ultimately convey powerful tales of resistance in the face of cultural imperialism. The films ask how any traditional life can endure when outside forces impose alien values on a sustainable way of life.

The difference, though, is that this doc reveals that the pilot whales contain dangerous levels of mercury that poison Faroese residents who eat hearty quantities of meat and blubber. The film shows the residents fighting to preserve a tradition that ultimately harms them. How futile is a fight for tradition, the film asks, if it harms future generations? Alternatively, director Mike Day lets the subjects convey how the contamination of their food comes from industrial countries corrupting their way of life from all sides.

Day captures the awesome visual power of the land as sweeping cinematography shows the Faroe Islands shrouded in mist and suspended in time. The film gains impressive access to the community, which proves particularly advantageous for obtaining footage of the whale hunt (rather graphic, though) and the harvesting of sea birds atop the ragged cliffs of the island. The real giant within The Islands and the Whales, however, is its phenomenal sound design, which uses Dolby Atmos audio to capture the full richness of the island landscape. The immersive aural tracks let the wind blow and the birds squawk as the film depicts a land worth preserving. The soundtrack affords a sense of being present on the Faroe Islands and right in the thick of the fight.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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