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Director Mike Day on The Islands and the Whales

Scottish-director Mike Day’s debut documentary feature, The Islands and the Whales will receive its UK premiere at Edinburgh International Film Festival on Friday 17 June.

This follows the film’s international premiere in April at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival, where Mike Day picked up the Best Emerging International Filmmaker Award.

The documentary, which was filmed over four years and resulted in the creation of a new sound recording technique, explores the unique hunting culture of the Faroe Islands and our effect on the environment.

We caught up with Mike Day ahead of Edinburgh International Film Festival to find out more about the film.

What inspired you to tell the story of The Islands and the Whales?

I met a group of Faroese sailors while I was shooting my previous film The Guga Hunters of Ness for BBC Scotland. They wondered what we were doing out there in the gales north of the Isle of Lewis! When we told them about the seabird hunters they were keen to show us their own hunting, as they are one of the very few places to eat seabirds. 

It soon emerged that their story was about a lot more than hunting seabirds and whales. Their seabirds were in rapid decline, the birds' food sources gone and their bellies full of plastic; while the whales were so riddled with mercury and PCBs that they were toxic to eat. It seemed these faraway islands had a story that we all needed to hear, the pollution was coming from us not from the Faroes. 

The Islands and the Whales Trailer from Intrepid Cinema on Vimeo.

What were the biggest challenges in making The Islands and the Whales?

We never knew when the whales would come, they only hunt the whales when they are spotted by chance, no one searches for them. It took time to gain the relationships needed to make a film this intimately, it's a sensitive and controversial subject and many had told us our cameras would be smashed at a hunt. That didn't happen, but it took months of waiting to capture a hunt on camera. 

The Islands and the Whales: Mike Day/Intrepid Cinema 

Filming resulted in the creation of a new sound recording technique, can you tell us more about this?

We used an ambsionic mic, it's a tetrahedral system that allows us to record not only stereo, left and right, and surround, front and back, but also up and down, so we can capture the full dome of sound around the listener as it was when we were filming. This coincided with the launch of Dolby's 128 speaker Atmos system. We hoped that we could map our source recordings to this new system and recreate the vertical sound. This had never been done before, so we worked with Harpex, an ambisonic software designer, and Skywalker Sound on George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch to convert the field recordings and map them to Dolby Atmos. The results have been a real success. It's not meant to be a firework display FX, but something you should feel adding a layer of storytelling and place, transporting the audience into the world on screen. It's also another unique reason to see the film on the big screen. 

What role did the Faroese community play in the film coming together?

There couldn't have been a film without the Faroese community, in time we were really embraced and it was incredibly moving how much people supported us. As much as they defend the hunting against outside criticism, they know that it is deeply unpopular outside of the Faroes, but there was a feeling amongst many that this was a tradition that would end, and that it should be documented. 

Most of the Faroese population have vastly reduced the amount of whale they eat, so there were others including our main characters, who wanted the film to send a message to the world that the Faroes were a warning to us all, that they may be the first to feel the effects of how badly polluted the seas are, but if we don't act now we'll be next.

The Islands and the Whales: Mike Day/Intrepid Cinema 

How does it feel to have been selected for, and premiering at EIFF?

I grew up with the festival as inspiration, and it was also the first place I pitched this film right before heading off on the first filming trip in 2011, so it's really a great honour to be going full circle and taking it home to the Scottish audiences. We will have an extended Q&A with some of the main characters from the film, and we also have Faroese band Sakaris coming to play after the screening. All the details of the film can be found on our Facebook page.

We are then heading to screen at AFI DOCS, the American Film Institute's festival in Washington DC.

What do you hope audiences take away from the film?

I hope it's a film that transports the audience into a place they haven't seen. The film shows the unique Faroese community wrangling with environmental problems we all face, and the film gives the audience a chance to consider many aspects of this story. I hope the film gives us all a chance to take stock of how we live with the natural world, not to ignore the clear signs of the damage we are causing. There is a chance to act now before it's too late, if not we will all find ourselves in the dilemma the Faroese face, putting contaminated food on the table. 

The Islands and the Whales: Mike Day/ Intrepid Cinema 

The Islands and the Whales premieres at Edinburgh International Film Festival on 17 June, with a further screening on 19 June. Tickets for both screenings can be booked now.  

Film Information

The Islands and the Whales [Documentary Feature]

Director/Producer: Mike Day

Synopsis: In their remote home in the North Atlantic the Faroe Islanders have always eaten what nature could provide, proud to put local food on the table. The land yields little, so they have always relied on harvesting their seas.

Hunting whales and seabirds kept them alive for generations, and gave them the way of life they love; a life they would pass on to their children. But today they face a grave threat to this tradition.

It is not the controversy surrounding whaling that threatens the Faroese way of life; the danger is coming from the whales themselves.

The Faroese are among the first to feel the effects of our ever more polluted oceans. They have discovered that their beloved whales are toxic, contaminated by the outside world. What once secured their survival now endangers their children and the Faroe Islanders must make a choice between health and tradition.

Technical: Mike Day worked with George Lucas’ Skywalker Sound to pioneer this, with Dolby to promote it, and with Harpex who have developed software especially for this film to translate the ambisonic recordings from a specially designed tetrahedral mic, to Dolby Atmos.

Creative Scotland funding: £70,600 National Lottery funding through Creative Scotland’s Targeted Screen Fund.

This article was published on 10 Jun 2016