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The Islands and the Whales: Mike Day

In the North Atlantic archipelago of the Faroe Islands the traditional hunting of seabirds and pilot whales continues to provide food for the table, but many doubt this way of life will continue. Local species of seabirds are in catastrophic decline as plastic flotsam fills their stomachs and pilot whales are highly contaminated with mercury and PCBs.

After spending thirty years studying thousands of the islands’ children, local toxicologist Dr Pal Weihe reports that eating the contaminated whale meat could cause permanent cognitive impairment to children exposed in the womb, and may be linked to the islands’ high rate of Parkinson’s Disease, as well as other health problems. As the islanders come to terms with the health revelations, they face increasing pressure from the outside world to stop the whale hunts. The Islands and the Whales is a documentary that follows the varying sides of the debate.

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Cinema Scandinavia: How did you get into the idea of filming the Faroese whale hunting process?

Mike Day: I was making my first documentary in the north-west islands of Scotland with the Guga hunters. They are the last ten men in the whole European Union legally permitted to hunt gannets for meat, and every year they hunt 2,000 of these seabirds. One day, a group of Faroese sailors met us around Sula Sgeir – which literally means gannet rock – wondering what the hell we were doing. They invited us to film their hunting and we found a story that was, of course, about much more.

How long did it take you to make this documentary?

It was shot over four years, fifty-three weeks altogether. I don’t know how much I went there anymore. I think we went there ten times. We had two trips where we waited three months for the whales to come, so that’s six months right there.

This film screened as part of the environmental section at the Bergen International Film Festival. Did you want to make an environmental film?

No, I went there to make a film about our disconnection from the natural world and the consequences of it. It wasn’t supposed to be an environmentalist film per se, it was more about how we live with nature. The Faroe Islands were such a unique microcosm that spoke to how we all live with the world. There was a duality between telling a very unique local story which I really wanted to document. I wanted to preserve these traditions which may be vanishing.

Are there any regulations in terms of hunting?

The puffin specialist in the documentary has spent many years trying to get species protected, and you can see one of the hunters didn’t know there were any endangered species. When it comes to the whales, it’s apparently self-regulated because the hunters only bring the whales into a region if that area needs more meat. If they have enough meat they let the whales just swim by. The difficulty is that some areas might not have whales for five years or two years and others will have them all the time. Also this year there’s only been 250 odd whales killed and three years ago it was 1,500, so it varies hugely from year to year.

The whale is completely distributed for free so they might sell a little bit here and there like you might sell home-made jam. It’s very socialisitically distributed according to very strict rules, like extra meat goes to nursing homes, and it’s distributed according to the economy. But the economy is 97% relying on fish. It does form a major source of free food. I think somebody did try to quantify the value and I think it came in around six million dollars per year in free food, but I don’t know how they calculated it.

The amount that they are taking, it’s varying every year, but the population is unknown of the pilot whales. It could be as low as 300 or it could be as high as 800,000. But whatever within that range they are taking below 2% so it’s sustainable for the population. So it’s a relatively small number and it’s not the greatest threat to the species. The greatest threat to the species is ships and oil rigs and sonar. From a population basis this isn’t really making much of an impact that would probably be significant in the greater eco-system.

Was a lot of research conducted into the traditions and hunting techniques of the Faroese?

I did some research but what’s important is immersing yourself in a place. One of the great things about making a documentary is that you are exploring this world in a sense, and this exploration is what the audience goes through. It’s really humbling, the access that people give you into their lives. In quite short periods of time you feel like you’ve lived there for a long time and that’s so intimate. People generally want you to represent their culture properly and so they really like opening up to you. That’s an incredible part of it.

And this is such a sensitive topic for them, too.

It is, and there have been many debates in the anti-whaling/pro-whaling argument. I wasn’t interested in that and the challenge was making a film that could go beyond that and look at a bigger picture, and at the same time represent the whale aspect properly. We don’t need to condone or condemn the whale hunting in the film. They know it’s condemned and they don’t expect anyone watching the film to necessarily fall in love with whale hunting, but I think they are happy they are being represented in a more objective way than previous coverage with anti-whaling groups. They’ve seen it and loved the film. As have anti-whaling groups and conservationist groups. They’ve all had something to take away from the film, and that’s what I hoped we could do.

They were very sceptical when I came. I got up there coincidentally during the week in holding the general assembly of the pilot whale hunting association. I was going to present my previous film before I started The Islands and the Whales. One man came by helicopter from another island because he wanted to see how the Scottish gannet hunters worked. At the beginning everyone was watching the film with their arms crossed like ‘who the hell is this guy coming to try and film the whale hunting like he’s not an activist of course he’s going to screw us over’ but by the time they’d seen the film I think they trusted me a lot more. But it still took over two years before things really settled.

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During the film, the only outside voice comes from the Sea Shepherd. That doesn’t seem to be helping the efforts to stop eating the whales, it just seems to polarise the island further. Are there any voices coming from the inside that are shifting the way this problem is addressed?

I believe this film is actually going a long way for them to be able to climb over this old, entrenched argument about anti-whaling. The doctor’s message is getting through. The grandfather in the film initially doesn’t agree with the doctor’s message, but even he admits that they used to eat it four times a week and that just doesn’t happen anymore. They eat it maybe twice a month. That’s part of the health message because as much as you don’t want to give up something you love, you sometimes have to.

When the Sea Shepherd go to the Faroe Islands it galvanises their resolve to continue hunting because of the argument that they make. It comes from the outside and just makes the Faroese more determined. There have been Sea Shepherd members who have come to screenings and walked away with the same conclusion. The Sea Shepherd do make the argument of the mercury levels, but it’s coming from the wrong source as far as the Faroese are concerned.

It’s all become a spectacle with the Sea Shepherd. The people going to the beach has quadrupled because it’s now a show to go and watch. You have the Danish Navy Seals rugby tackling guys from Australia, there’s not much else going on in those islands! It’s a good show.

What unites both sides of the whaling argument is the issue of the mercury levels found in the whale meat. Did you know much about it before starting the documentary?

I knew about but I didn’t realise the extent of the situation. There are some babies that are born with forty times the average amount of mercury. There’s permanent cognitive impairment for a significant number of people who are exposed to it in childhood. But again, the wider point is that it’s not just the Faroese people who are suffering. Tuna and swordfish have half the amount of levels that the whales do. The mercury is set to double in the coming decades if we don’t do anything about it.

There’s a universal warning here. That’s what the folklore in the documentary represents. There are warnings but it’s at your peril. The seas can actually return to normal quite quickly if the emission mercury levels are cut. We’ll be having discussions with the United Nations and Harvard University about helping make people more aware of this story. It is a major problem because our seafood is polluted. For example, Japan recently stopped the import of Norwegian whale because it is so high in pesticides. It wasn’t fit for human consumption according to their health regulations.

There is a potential happy ending with the mercury. It has a half-life of six weeks so in a relatively short period of time a study at Harvard University showed that within decades the seas can return to normal if mercury levels are cut. It could well go back to normal, and the Faroese government is looking at making a statement with the United Nations after seeing the film. So there might be a happy ending still.

You mentioned your previous documentary was about hunters. Is this a topic of general interest to you?

I’m interested in traditional and environmental ideas of providing food for your family.

It’s frustrating to see how much we carry on in the face of environmental degradation. I didn’t want to preach environmentalism, it was more about showing an issue we all face. It’s a debate that’s been dominated by outside sources and I care about it a lot. I’ve lived in the community and to give them the chance to speak is a really big moment.

In some ways for a lot of people in the community the film was a chance to come to terms with the health issues. The discoveries in the Faroe Islands and mercury is a leading study worldwide. It was done in conjunction with Harvard University. It’s a major scientific research that shows mercury contamination in our seafood harms us. That’s very significant. They have to cut back on their whale meat to take care of their health, and that’s significant because it means they are losing their tradition.

Film details

The Islands and the Whales / Directed by Mike Day / Produced by Mike Day for Intrepid Cinema / Premiered at the Hot Docs Film Festival in Canada.

This interview was partially conducted in association with a Q&A at the Bergen International Film Festival

Emma Vestrheim

Emma Vestrheim is the editor-in-chief of Cinema Scandinavia. Originally from Australia, she is now based in Bergen, Norway, and attends major Nordic film festivals to conduct interviews and review new films.