Film Review: The Islands and the Whales


In the North Atlantic between Iceland and Scotland are the Faroe islands, an archipelago situated above sea level that has risen to form an habitable land mass, a place of residence for a small coastal community, consisting mainly of fishermen cast in centuries of traditions and ways of life.

In the waters nearby and echoing a similar sentiment live creatures of the deep, whales whose existence have provided the island’s residents with a source of food, income, and purpose.

Mike Day’s The Islands and the Whales, a documentary which tells of the ever-present conflict between man and whale, between hunter and hunted, begins with a wide shot of the islands portrayed by the use of a desaturated colour palate consisting of whites and blues which runs throughout. It is as if to encourage viewers to remain merely observer, to remain clinical and unbiased to either party presented, in an attempt to strip away any sign of emotions which may sway viewers one way or another.

I myself find it hard to take a rational approach in my consumption of The Islands and the Whales. Day’s cinematography of the island is stunning, vast landscape images of seabirds circling the island, aerial shots of the island and fishermen hunting whales that is breathtaking to watch on a big screen. I am divided between two worlds, a loyalty to mankind of which I am a part of and a sympathy developed for the whales of which the former hunt. It’s bloody, graphic and confronting, with one of the opening scenes of the documentary consisting of a group of men rushing to shore only to be greeted by an ominous red washing up from the ocean, the result of a hunt. It’s harsh and confronting for viewers especially for those easily affected by scenes showing cruelty to animals, a slaughter performed as if a way of life and a means of survival. Day follows the Faroe fishermen around, the residents speaking in a foreign language which is translated through subtitles onscreen as if to create a divide between viewer and subject that reduces any chance of feeling connected to either side.

Whaling, a prominent issue that has surfaced most recently in relation to environmental sustainability, marine conservation and whale being endangered is presented as a topic explored in the Day’s documentary but what is shown isn’t the perspective of the activists such as marine conversationists Sea Shepherd but locals of the island who consume whales as part of tradition and culture. Despite the overwhelming evidence presented by the use of audio grabs from news radio, experts such as doctors telling the residents that whale meat is not fit for human consumption and activists making the locals aware of the dangers of this tradition, it continues. Despite the fact that the Sea Shepherd’s cause is echoed along with those who hold expert opinions in medicine, conservation and an objective news sources that tells me whaling is wrong, there is a loyalty that I have developed with the island’s residents perhaps due to the screen time afforded to them by director Mike Day.

The island’s residents can not be interpreted as monsters as many may be led to believe, despite the slaughter of these marine creatures. Day shows scenes of family members sharing a meal together, attending meetings and going to church in a show of community on the island. In some sense, the experts presenting their opinions on the matter of whaling have arrived too late almost as if invading on a community’s way of life, cutting through years of tradition and culture. Shots of seabird corpses piled up from a hunt and scenes of locals stuffing the carcasses of the islands birds is a constant reminder that death is an ever-present fact of life on the island. The fishermen of the island, perhaps interpreted as hunters, speak of respecting the animals by using every part of it so that the life it gave was not in vain.

Emotionally affected by the confronting nature of the hunted whales and an almost heartless cull of marine life, I feel a compulsion to speak up for these sea creatures despite the fact that I am merely an observer of this documentary. Day, having introduced the island’s residents early on in the piece somehow hinders me and I am undecided, tossed like waves in the sea divided between two worlds, the island’s residents and the whales.

The Islands and the Whales screens as part of Antenna Festival at the following places:

Sydney, Verona – Saturday 15th Oct, 8:30pm
Brisbane, New Farm – Sunday 30th Oct, 4pm
Melbourne, Westgarth – Sunday 6th Nov, 6pm

For more information and to book visit:



Words by Addy Fong.