The people of the Faroe Islands have long faced criticism from the outside world for their history of whaling. Every year they embark upon a hunt called the grindadráp, also known as The Grind, during which dozens of boats drive groups of pilot whales to the island shores, where hundreds of people wait to slaughter them. It is a centuries-old tradition which provides the Faroese with their staple foods of whale meat and blubber. The process of butchering the whales, however, can seem brutal to outsiders. By the time the last one is killed, the sea water is crimson with blood and the hunters stand triumphant over their quarry, splattered in gore.
Mike Day’s latest documentary, The Islands and the Whales, provides a unique insight into the grindadráp and the culture from which it originated. Surprisingly, it doesn’t begin with the more controversial aspects of the hunt. One of the opening scenes shows a large crowd running towards a group of beached whales but it cuts away before any blood is shed. If you didn’t know better, you would think that these people are rushing to help the whales.
Instead, the film first looks at how the health of the Faroese is being adversely affected by the food that the grindadráp provides. Rising levels of mercury in the sea, said to be caused by industrial pollution from around the globe, means that it is now unsafe for them to eat whale meat on a regular basis. Some are pragmatic about this and plan to cut down on the amount they consume, while others are resolutely opposed to the idea.
Throughout the film Mike Day manages to equate many of the issues affecting this tiny Danish archipelago with the rest of the world, most notably when the rest of the world turns its attention to them. A conservationist group called the Sea Shepherds turns up with, surreally, Pamela Anderson in tow, to disrupt the grindadráp. At a press conference, one of the locals asks why their tradition of whaling is any worse than the practises of the food industry in other countries. Why, if it’s sustainable and humane, as they claim, is killing a whale for food any worse than killing a cow?
An answer isn’t provided but, in short, it’s because people can see it happening. It is a gruesome practise that is well-documented in the global press. In other parts of the developed world the process of turning a cow into a bunch of steaks is well-hidden from the populace, who are happy in their ignorance. There have been questions of how humanely the whales are slaughtered, so now only licensed practitioners can kill them. The meat and blubber is then divided among the community in a gathering conducted by the chief-of-police.
There is no doubt that watching the hunt is difficult. The hunters kill the whales by slicing their spines with a blade inserted through the blowhole. The animals thrash and squeal in the shallow water. There is blood everywhere. It’s understandable that outsiders condemn such a practise when they see how violent it is, but how many would feel the same about their beef burger if they had the chance to visit an abattoir? The islanders feel understandably defensive about this.
The Islands and the Whales provides a balanced, objective insight into this intriguing issue. The individual perspectives are diverse, from the toxicologist who draws the ire of his community for dissuading them from eating meat, to the families who know they need to change their habits to protect their children. Regardless of your own opinion on the thorny issue of the grindadráp, it is easy to see exactly why the position of the Faroese is so tenuous. It is all they have known, yet there are people on all sides telling them to abandon it.
Mike Day captures the majesty of this small group of islands with breath-taking aerial cinematography. When he’s not high above the archipelago, he’s on the water with the fishermen or clambering along cliff faces to film the hunt for roosting birds. Certain details are subtly picked out, such as the cigarettes and Pepsi that one man consumes just as we’ve heard about how the whale meat he loves potentially could kill him.
Some of the Faroese in this film believe the last hunt isn’t far away and on the evidence of The Island and the Whales it’s hard to disagree. Between increasing pressure from conservationists around the world and the health implications, there must come a time when the practise isn’t sustainable. If or when that time does come, Mike Day has at least provided the world with a balanced document of what it stood for.