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Four Years of Access to Whale Hunts: Director Mike Day on The Islands and the Whales

The Islands and the Whales

The Islands and the Whales, which recently had its North American theatrical premiere at IFC Center and broadcast premiere on POV, is one of the most innovative documentaries on marine conservation I’ve seen in years. Director Mike Day is carving out a niche for himself by addressing the interstices where traditional cultures butt against modern conservationist ideals, resulting in nuanced interactions that defy expectations. The Islands and the Whales, for instance, shows the people of the Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic — Viking descendants who have lived off of the sea for generations — and how they are struggling to sustainably maintain their traditions such as whale hunting in the 21st century. Not only are these whale hunters environmentally conscious, but they themselves are falling victim to globalization, as pollution from elsewhere in the world is driving up mercury levels in pilot whales and hence in the Faroese who live off of them. The film may be reminiscent of Man of Aran by default, but its communal portrait is much more nuanced and lies closer in spirit to the National Film Board’s Challenge for Change films, such as the Fogo Island series of the 1960s. What we see is a complex society, struggling to adapt to harsh economic and social realities without losing the sense of who they are and where they come from. As environmental concerns increasingly converge with societal ones, The Islands and the Whales also serves as a model for the future of nature films.

I talked with Day about his choice of topics, how he gained access to such a controversial subject and his production process in the remote archipelago.

Filmmaker: Your films are part nature documentary, part sociological or even anthropological film. What is it like straddling that line where the human and natural worlds connect?

Day: The project drew me in because it sat on this intersection, in a grey area of a topic often portrayed as black and white. It confounded so many expectations and challenged my own assumptions so many times, as it does the audience’s, and that’s my favourite place to be in a film. Long form documentary gives the space to bridge different worlds like that, to take people out of their echo chamber and into a maybe uncomfortable place that requires independent critical thought, and hopefully gives something that sits with them afterwards.

Far enough out at sea, out of radio contact, or helicopter rescue range, you feel very small and at the mercy of mother nature; there’s not so many places you feel humbled like that anymore. The less we feel that the easier it is to do harm, and I think the Faroes were a place still close to that, although modern life had blinded them to it also. Today we have such power to damage the natural world, but we are yet to wake up to the new level of responsibility and stewardship that comes with that.

The Faroe Islands straddled those worlds. Their community was only just coming to terms with the change from surviving against the odds of nature, to needing to become a steward of it. The grandfather in the film grew up in a land without cars, roads or electricity; now, apparently, they have the highest percentage of Facebook users in the world. In a short time, they went from losing men at sea fishing, listening to warnings from elves and relying on whale meat for survival, to having their meat polluted by our electricity generation and Pamela Anderson turning up to tell them to be vegetarian. So, if the Faroe Islands are going through this, there was really nowhere left to hide!

Universally, it seems that our progress, and the realities of our relationship with the natural world and our vastly expanded population, are hard to come to terms with, as much for the whalers refusing to accept the toxicity of their food as for the climate change deniers in America causing the pollution, and so that’s exactly where I felt I should put the camera.

Filmmaker: What about themes? You touch on so many and you’ve just mentioned them right now — conservation, globalization, pollution, health, and the disappearance of traditional cultures — that I wonder how you kept your focus, both in production and in post.

Day: The focus was always on embracing the complexity of the story. It was all intertwined and nothing meant as much in isolation. It’s easier for specific interest groups to focus on a narrow aspect of a situation, but the interconnectivity of all these elements was the story here. Showing what happens when we ignore the warnings that an overview of those interactions gives us really is the message of the film.

In post, I actually cut the ending of the film one morning very early on in the editing, so we were focused on heading to that conclusion but had no idea of the path it would take to get there. The film really came together working with the legend Mary Lampson, and we had a lot on the cutting room floor to get it as focused as it is. Hopefully some of those dead darlings will be resurrected as short pieces in their own right in the next couple of months.

There is also, of course, an effort to document this people and this time. Whaling is likely to vanish in the not too distant future, as it has elsewhere, so this was most likely the final ebb of an old northern world now vanishing; it felt like there was a duty to capture that properly, and that is partly why we were given such access.

Filmmaker: I’m glad you mentioned access, because whenever documenting a topic as controversial as whale hunting, access can be very difficult. How did you gain the trust of the Faroese community to let you into their lives and customs — not to mention the hunts themselves — so deeply?

Day: Access was a challenge, particularly as we were told that anti-whaling activist filmmakers had been to islands and lied to the locals about what they were doing. So trust was low, plus the information about the whaling that was going around online was almost all fantasy, so there was a huge distrust of how this controversial topic would be covered. The emails circulating against the hunt stated that the whales were endangered, that killing them was a rite of passage, that it was a festival, a sport — all of which is just untrue. Our position was that we were going to show the whaling for what it was. Our goal wasn’t to condemn or condone, and the whalers understood that it wasn’t going to be received well in all quarters, but they wanted to be judged for what it was.

Getting access began when I turned up in the islands to see if this film was even possible to make. No one knows when the whales will appear, and it was said cameras on the beaches would be smashed. By good luck the annual meeting of the pilot whale hunting association, the Grindamanna Felagið, was taking place just after I arrived. The government officials, the hunters, police and hunt foremen were all in the main hall and they agreed to show a five-minute clip of my previous film, The Guga Hunters of Ness, and allow me to ask permission to film.

Gugas are a juvenile gannet, a large northern seabird, and the guga hunters are the last ten men in the UK who are allowed to hunt seabirds for meat. It was during the making of that that we’d met Faroese sailors who suggested we filmed their hunting, although at the time, after being knocked about in storms for weeks on a 36-foot boat, it was the last thing we wanted to do. The guga hunters of the Outer Hebrides of Scotland are also long-lost neighbours of these Faroese Viking descendants, also hunting the same majestic gannets; hundreds of years ago they also spoke the same Nordic language. The guga hunters hadn’t let anyone film them for fifty years, and said no to us filming unless we could sail to the hunting grounds, something I don’t think they really expected us to do. It was a twenty-hour sail through severe gales to the rocky island where the hunt took place, forty miles north of the Isle of Lewis. My brother and I are both skippers who had done a fair amount of ocean sailing, so we took the challenge, but the weather was unusually bad. On day one of filming, the hunters’ boat crew and I were rescued by helicopter after their trawler was sinking in the Atlantic. Thankfully a sympathetic winchman grabbed the camera and their boat limped home; ours needed three days of repairs.

So, all this helped gain access: we had a niche audience of Faroese fishermen and hunters who enjoyed watching others hunting the same food they ate, and just as much seeing our crew getting mauled by the storms in waters they sailed in themselves. The Grindamanna Felagið were due to watch five minutes of the film but in the end watched the whole hour. There were some muted nods of approval when I asked if I could film the hunts, and that was the start of it all, but it took a lot of drinking schnapps and another four years of filming to get the full access we needed to get it all in the can.

Filmmaker: What was production over those four years like? How long were you actually there shooting, and what was it like both waiting for the whales to be spotted and once an actual hunt was underway?

Day: Fairly brutal! The islands are about a 2000km drive from my home in Scotland to North Denmark, then three days on a ship out into the Atlantic to the islands. We were on a shoestring budget and the islands are very expensive, so it was far cheaper to buy a van and drive ourselves there. We ate a lot of fish; a whole cod was about the price of half a pint of beer. We loved the islands and the community. We soon made great friends there and learned where to find the best halibuts.

In the end, we shot for 53 weeks over four years with one year of post. We had to wait for the whales to appear, which can happen anytime, so twice we waited for three months through the summer. On top of that there was the logistical challenge of getting to the one of the 17 hunting bays before the hunt is already over, as they are spread across the whole archipelago, including one island that is a two-hour sail away, which we did attempt once in a zodiac in some fairly hairy weather.

So, it took four months to film the first whale hunt. It happened the morning after we’d shot non-stop for 38 hours, down on the cliff ledges of Mykines on their gannet hunt with the men who’d come to see the guga hunters film. We were the first foreigners to go down those cliffs on that hunt, lowered off the 400-foot sea cliffs in the dead of night onto a four-foot ledge of birds and nests until the next morning.

After two days of filming without sleep we got home in the evening and put everything on to charge and transfer and collapsed! We got a call early the next morning saying whales had been sighted. Thankfully everything was transferred and most the batteries were charged. The Sea Shepherds had left the week before, so the sheriff gave the all clear to go ahead with the hunt. It was a real scramble to get there in time, find a boat to put a second camera on, make sure they knew who we were and avoid getting in a brawl. Also, my camera had broken while down the cliffs the previous day and I had no monitor, only the EVF, which gave an occasional electric shock to my eye, so I had to improvise a rig with a monopod (for what should be shoulder-mounted set up with the Sony F3 and its external recorder). That definitely added to the fun while waist-deep in the bloody water with tails and blood flying around all over the place. Thankfully we were remembered by a lot of the hunters who’d also been down the cliffs hunting gannets the day before. They shouted to defend us from anyone interfering with filming: it seemed we’d earned our stripes by clambering around a cliff covered in bird shit all night.

Filmmaker: Can you talk about the technical aspects of production, particularly the sound recording and design? Viewers who watch the film online or on television won’t hear it, but you created a fascinating system for vertical sound design for the theatrical version of the film.

Day: We used an ambisonic microphone to capture the full 3D sphere of sound during the hunts — not just front/back left/right but also vertical, which can translate to Dolby Atmos. We’d originally recorded with a mind to going to 7.1 with it, but then Dolby launched this new system with speakers on the ceiling and we realised we could map this B-Format ambisonic recording format directly to that. We had to redesign software to do it with Harpex, and then worked with Christopher Barnett at Skywalker Sound to perfect it and get it working in the theatres in 5.1 also. It was an interesting experiment and we’re using again now in our next film, a western. It is very subtle but does a great job of transferring the sound signature of a place for an audience to feel in the cinema.

Filmmaker: With this film now having its North American broadcast premiere, what are you planning on working on next?

Day: Next up I have a film in Greenland, I’m managing to go even further north, and by ship again. Also another in the US in the west, filming cowboy poets, which couldn’t be further from the sea.

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