A whale hunt tradition in the Faroe Islands that’s long been condemned by animal rights activists is given evenhanded examination in Vincent Kelner’s “A Taste of Whale.” This well-crafted French documentary does provide some of the grisly “massacre” footage seen in prior indictments of the seasonal “Grindadrap,” or Grind. But it also lets locals weigh in about something they feel is a part of their cultural identity, while Sea Shepherd campaigners opposed to a practice they deem “monstrous” also get their say. This solid both-sides-now overview also raises wider questions regarding humanity’s sometimes-hypocritical ethics toward what we eat, where we get it, and how.
Opening text informs, “Around 700 large dolphins called ‘pilot whales’ are slaughtered each year in the archipelago” that comprises the Faroes, a nation of about 50,000 that lies in the Atlantic two hundred miles north of Scotland. Their blubber edible as well as their meat, those cetaceans have sustained human life here to a large extent, with the Grind on record as dating back nearly 600 years. That dependency is in the past, and so are some more brutal killing methods. The negative attention Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and other organizations began focusing on the hunt decades ago did stir some changes everyone agrees on, including swifter demises for the pods of passing whales that boats drive into coves.
Nonetheless, that bloodbath (just briefly glimpsed before a long sequence at the one-hour mark) is undeniably a nasty sight that literally turns the sea red. While the creatures’ suffering may be shorter than before, it is still unpleasant to see their panicked crowding, beached in shallow water, and hear the death squeals. One resident speaks for many, however, when he says, “It is bloody, it is barbaric, but that’s (the same) when you kill any animal.” Does this event get the flack simply because it’s out in public, as opposed to hidden behind slaughterhouse walls? A late sequence showing factory abattoirs around the world further underlines his point.
To opponents, such whataboutism is no excuse: Sea Shepherd personnel here eat vegan anyway, and consider this tradition to be straight-up “murder” of “intelligent creatures with complex social structures.” Their attempted interventions may invite local hostility and arrest by law enforcement, but they feel they are helping save a very beleaguered planet. Defensive Faroes argue that, well, at least they are eating locally, rather than contributing to the many problems generated by packaged, processed, imported food.
However, all this may soon be moot anyway, for reasons unrelated to either camp’s more emotion-based pleas. Even the Islands’ chief Public Health official says the pilot whales have been exposed to so much pollution that their meat is now too contaminated (especially by mercury) to be recommended for human consumption, in particular children and pregnant women.
That provides a sort of perverse happy ending to “A Taste of Whale,” suggesting this divisive issue may soon resolve itself if the citizens decide to end the Grind for the sake of their own well-being. Certainly there’s a degree of “We don’t like being told what to do by outsiders” to Islanders’ society, which has maintained its own language and culture despite long periods of rule by larger powers. Faroese now enjoy a high standard of living, but it has arrived through countless generations of flinty survival. Both sides represented onscreen claim to have been misrepresented by the other, though when a boat of modishly black-clad Sea Shepherds must be rescued by locals, or ally Pamela Anderson shows up at a press conference, it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for the unpretentious home team.
Kelner’s focus on individual personalities — in particular two Islanders, a teacher and a full-time fisherman, plus one high-ranking and one volunteer Sea Shepherd — makes for a lively, non-dogmatic treatment of the subject. At least it does until the last reel or so, when the gore we’ve been spared till then gets full play. A very well-turned assembly has the director himself making the most of the area’s natural beauties as DP, while Merryn Jeann contributes an original score that is fine, although a bit less so when it indulges in some hazy vocal noodling.
The fact that this project may be rather long-aborning is suggested by an interview with the Islands’ Prime Minister — only he hasn’t occupied that office since 2015. Nor does “Taste” note the potentially game-changing events of last September, when a whale slaughter over twice the usual annual number stirred widespread criticism, even among local supporters. The current prime minister is purportedly weighing major policy changes towards the Grind as a result.
Greenwich Entertainment will release “A Taste of Whate” to limited North American theaters, Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV on May 27.