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Tradition is threatened by environmental and health concerns in Mike Day’s Faroe Islands-set documentary.

An ethnographic doc with plenty of room for artful filmmaking, Mike Day’s sometimes breath-catchingly beautiful The Islands and the Whales takes moviegoers to the remote Faroe Islands, which sit between Iceland and Scotland. There, “48,000 descendants of Vikings” are currently deciding how tightly they should cling to traditions, born of necessity and common sense, that are threatened by outside forces and environmental realities. Sensitive and gratifying to the senses, it’s a far more rewarding big-screen experience than most major eco-themed documentaries; it should enjoy attention at art houses before heading to smaller screens.

The Faroes are an autonomous part of the Kingdom of Denmark, an unusual arrangement that gives them more say over certain things than their neighbors across the sea in the European Union. At issue here is their hunting of pilot whales, which islanders have eaten for a thousand years. The “grind,” as locals call the hunt, is not a pleasant sight: When fishermen spot the 15- to 20-foot whales in open water, they drive packs of them into the bay; meanwhile, word goes out among locals, who rush out to the shore. As the whales are pushed toward land, throngs of men attack them with hooks and spears, turning the bay red with blood.

Animal-rights advocates from other countries are predictably appalled at this ritual. But what might actually stop it is the use of coal to generate electricity. As seas fill with mercury thanks to coal-burning, the toxin works its way up the food chain to the pilot whales. Faroe Island researcher Pal Weihe has spent years monitoring his fellow citizens’ mercury levels and studying the correlation between mercury and disorders like Parkinson’s disease. Though he finds it a very unpleasant task to tell locals their traditional diet endangers them, Weihe is working to wean them off whale meat and blubber.

The whale hunters of the Faroe Islands believe that hunting is vital to their way of life, but, when a local professor makes a grim discovery about the effects of marine pollution, environmental changes threaten their way of life forever.

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