“To take the audience into another place”

An interview with Mike Day, director of The Islands and the Whales

 Winner of top awards at the Hot Docs and DOC NYC film festivals, this visually stunning film focuses on the inhabitants of the Faroe Islands during a period of social and environmental upheaval. Long dependent on the controversial practice of hunting pilot whales for their survival, these descendants of Vikings get a bracing reality check when a longtime doctor discovers their customary diet is slowly poisoning them. With the arrival of Baywatch star and “Save the Whales” activist Pamela Anderson and her Sea Shepherd crew, filmmaker Mike Day observes a community at a critical crossroads and their way of life irrevocably threatened. The filmmaker speaks with DOC10’s Anthony Kaufman about transporting the audience, eating sheep's sphincter, and how what’s happening in the Faroe Islands offers a message for us all.

First off, before we get to the issues in the film, The Islands and the Whales is such an astonishingly beautiful film. Why was it important to you to pay so much attention to the cinematography and the visuals? Do you think the visual beauty offsets some of the tougher aspects of the subject matter?

Documentary cinema hits an interesting intersection in the craft between journalism, activism and information; and cinema and art. Those aspects of the craft aren't mutually exclusive. Of course I wanted to transport the audience there as much as possible, to feel as much as to think, and not to preach or lecture, but rather have the audience present in that place, and make those own discoveries, and the cinematic language and visual storytelling is central to that.

I think the visual beauty in the film comes from the place, and it serves to emphasize what's at stake. Here is a pristine remote group of islands tainted by our way of life, and while we can so easily pour scorn on bays red with blood, it misses far more sinister problems that lie beneath the surface, and that hidden threat is from us, and threatens us, too. So this kneejerk reaction to the visual prevents us from seeing our own hypocrisy and the complexity of the issues.

So how I shot that whale hunt was probably the most considered part of the filming. It's a brief moment in the film, but to capture it without bringing our external prejudices and preconceptions to it, but rather to shoot it as it felt for our characters to be there was at the heart of it. For me, what is so powerful about long form creative documentary, there is the space and time to explore, to take the audience into another place they might not be comfortable with and to create empathy and understanding and not to just recoil in horror at the unknown.

A lot of recent films dealing with environmental issues put forth a fairly strong argument about the dangers of climate change or disappearing coral reefs, but I think your film is far more complicated. So my question is: How do you see the film within the context of an activist or advocacy documentary? Do you see it that way? What kinds of documentary films inspired you as a filmmaker?

I think there is a fundamental problem in how many people are disconnected with the reality of nature. We are simply too many people on this planet not to take ownership of our role as stewards. I hope the film helps give a wider picture—the Faroese are all of us, and as individuals have a long way to go and we must put our efforts in the right place.

The film makes no attempt to defend the whaling, but it is dangerous to be distracted by blood in the sea and miss a bigger horror. The Faroese were called murdering barbarians and would have death threats sent to them online; they would reply that the whales aren't endangered and this was local sustainable food, and the debate would go in circles. I think the film gave the chance for the Faroese to be empowered to make another look at the reality of the toxins, to acknowledge the pollution problem without it being part of the anti-whaling dialogue.

I hope this film makes people critical of easy assumptions and leaping on simplified versions of complex problems, because stopping this sustainable whaling won't save the oceans. Stopping burning coal to power air conditioning might, but that's a far harder battle!

Can you also talk about the rich sound design? Without getting too technical, how do you think the sound lends itself to the experience of the movie? Any specific moments that you think became particularly effective because of the sound?

As with the visual storytelling, the sound helps bring the audience to the islands. We had an ambisonic mic that recorded the full sphere of sound around us. It should help take you there, to feel the sounds of the islands. Sound was a big part of the film again often to re-calibrate the audience to be present in the islands, to experience it through the eyes of the characters.

The Faroe Islanders appear to be a fairly reserved and isolated group of people. What was it like for you as an outsider and how did you gain their trust, particularly the family at the center with the kids who were tested for high mercury levels?

Trust was built drinking schnapps and eating the local food! It turned out that the sheep's sphincter dish hadn't been a common food for quite a while, but our mettle was well tested! Also being the first foreigners to go off the 600ft high gannet cliffs of Mikines was an honor and also earned us our stripes. Not many have gone off the sea cliffs to hunt on the ledges and it was a huge privilege to be allowed to follow the hunters down there.

Can you give readers an update on what's happening now with these families? Do they continue to eat the whale meat? Have there been any significant since the film was finished?

I think almost everyone is eating less whale than they used to. It's not so appetizing to know your food is toxic and pizza is far easier to prepare than slaughtering a whale and processing that. The puffins are now in such a bad way that there is meant to be no hunting of those at all. I think the film has allowed the discussion in the Faroes to move beyond defending whaling to discussing the disturbing reality that this is a real problem we all face, and the Faroese and the whales are the messengers giving us a warning that we ignore at our peril. Eventually, if the levels of consumption fall below the amount hunted the government will have to look at regulating it differently, because it isn't in the Faroese culture to waste food, so if it's being thrown away then it should end.

Paula Froehle