The Islands and the Whales review – a community poisoned | Film

“In the past, nature was a giant, and humans were so small. Now it’s the other way around.” The speaker is a Faroe Islander in Mike Day’s sombre, poignant, almost funereal film about a growing crisis in the way of life being pursued in that wild and beautiful archipelago 200 miles off the coast of Scotland. (The Faroe Islands are a self-governing region, subject to Danish control.) With farming being almost impossible, the islanders are historically reliant on fishing and particularly whale-hunting, and also hunting seabirds for food – a slightly bizarre activity, although rationally speaking no more bizarre than any other carnivorous practice. Yet rising levels of mercury in fish and whales are causing anxiety. Are they now dependent on food which is poisoned? An older generation attributes it all to the encroachment of modernity and electric light, and wistfully talk about the tradition of the Huldufólk, fairies or sprites that they say have now abandoned the islands, driven away by the crude modern world. And this modern world now disapproves of Faroese whale-hunting. A protest group surreally led by Pamela Anderson arrives to stage a press conference, a part of the film which could have been shot by Bill Forsyth. In answer to Anderson’s slightly testy advice to embrace vegetarianism, the islanders reply that vegetables must be air-freighted into the shops – and that has its own environmental implications. There is a tiny undercurrent of anger elsewhere: a feeling that warnings about mercury levels are alarmist and disloyal. The local doctor advising families on this points out an airgun bullet-hole in his car. I sometimes wonder if a narrative voiceover (very unfashionable in documentary film-making) could have made the issues at stake clearer, and given an informative guide to the community festival at the end. It’s a very good-looking film, with lovely images.