Art and patience in filming nature

In nature, there are performances happening all around us all the time – flowers blooming, birds singing – and the thing is, we really don’t pay much attention. We didn’t buy a ticket, and they’re such commonplace productions. But turn a camera on them – capture those moments – and they transform. Filmmaking is all about storytelling though – potentially, a beginning, a middle, and an end. A bird singing isn’t a story on its own, so as filmmakers, we have to find the story, which can take months, or even years.

The films I’ve made focus on our interaction with the natural world, as humans. And so finding those stories where that intersects can mean that we have to wait a long time for particular events to happen. My last film, ‘The Islands and the Whales’, explores the complex relationship between the people of the remote Faroe islands, and their food source, the sea. The land doesn’t yield much, so they’ve always relied on sea birds, fish, and also whales for sustenance. But the Faroese are among the first to feel the affects of our ever more polluted oceans. They’ve discovered that the whales are contaminated by the outside world. What once secured their survival now endangers them and their children. So it’s this story of tradition versus a changing world and ways of life.

The whale hunt, which is a huge, celebrated event, happens randomly throughout the year, so to film this story we had to sit for three months waiting for it to happen, and we had to do that twice. And then it happens so fast. That’s the thing with filming in nature – you can wait a very long time for something, and then the thing itself happens very quickly. The cameras we use are clever – you can keep them filming constantly, but instead of recording endless footage, they just record a number of seconds – 6, 10, 20 – and then start again so in the time it takes for you to realize the action is happening and actually press record, you haven’t missed that vital split second.

The whale hunt wasn’t split seconds though. Once the whales are spotted, they’re herded to one of seventeen bays, and we jump into cars or boats and head where they’re going. Typically we’re a crew of two; on a lot of occassions it’s even just me on my own, and sometimes the best stuff comes like that, because you’re lower impact, you can tread more lightly. Then for bigger things, there might be four of us, but for the hunt we basically threw cameras at everyone with a pair of hands.

Whatever your feelings are on the hunt itself, it was an incredibly adrenal moment because everyone is wary of the fact that you can get killed by one of the whales. We’re waist- deep in the whale’s blood in subarctic water, but the water actually gets warm because of the blood and the adrenaline of everyone around – it’s a very primeval experience. And it’s frantic – they’re trying to do it as fast as possible. Of course, these things used to be very common I suppose, everywhere in the world, but now it’s so much more shocking to us because it’s so rare to experience something like that, because slaughter houses are hidden well away.

So you’re capturing this vital moment, and these people who don’t have a supermarket on every street corner are excited, because they’re all going to get a huge piece of free meat. And we captured that excitement, but for the hunters, there is another sort of emotion. Most of these guys aren’t fishermen – they’re just regular guys; you see some with tears in their eyes – it is emotional. There are a very strange, unexpected series of emotions that play out during the whole thing. Beforehand, everyone’s standing on the beach; you have all these big macho guys who’ve become very quiet, worrying if the hunt is going to go well. So they’re all standing in this line in silence – it’s like we’re going over the top in trenches or something – it’s really eerie. And then it happens – it’s like a kind of berserker frenzy of running into the sea and trying to get it done as quickly as possible. And then afterward it’s essentially a harvest festival – a celebration – because they’ve done it and they’ve got all this food for free, that gets distributed to everyone in the community.

But the whale meat is toxic, and the people know that now. So this might be a dying ritual. It might be a dying people. Because if they can’t rely on the ocean for food and they can’t rely on the land, there’s nothing. So for me, this is us documenting these profound relationships between nature and humanity before those relationships are gone forever.


Mike Day is the director behind award winning documentaries ‘The Guga Hunters of Ness’ and ‘The Islands and the Whales’. Both are available for streaming on Vimeo.