A documentary by Joel Heath. Unrated. Opens Friday, March 2, at the Vancity Theatre, and Tuesday, March 6, at the Denman Cinemas
Apparently, it takes a working scientist to make an environmental film look poetic and artistic. Vancouver biologist Joel Heath spent seven harsh winters travelling to Hudson Bay's remote Belcher Islands to make his first documentary. The result—though it carries pressing information about ecological change—is a near mystical mix of time-lapse Arctic landscapes, marine-life photography, and interwoven imagery of present-day and historical Inuit life.
As it happens, Heath's main subject is a rather unsexy animal: the eider duck, producer of the warmest down feathers on Earth. But it also turns out to be a remarkable creature, as we see in lingering underwater sequences of the ducks diving, flapping their scalloped wings, to eat sea urchins. The bird is also a barometer for environmental shifts in the North. Through modern and staged historical sequences about the Inuit way of life (reenacted with the community), we learn that the islands' people still gather eiderdown to make their parkas. They gently remove it from the nests, always leaving some behind.
But Heath gradually reveals that the ducks are dying off en masse, mostly because of Quebec hydroelectric dams that are shooting relatively warm freshwater into the salty bay. He captures the profound changes to the ocean currents and sea-ice formation through time-lapse imagery set to haunting music. We also hear local hunters talk about how their centuries-old ways of hunting and fishing are being affected.
Heath humanizes the statistics by showing the pride and strength of the Sanikiluaq community. It sometimes feels a bit anthropological, but we get to know a people the world barely knows exists. Extended families now crowd in front of TV sets in houses instead of igloos, and the tiny town even has its own rap band. Yet as much as this people's culture has changed, its strong values have not: humanity's touch on the environment should be as light as a feather.
Watch the trailer for People of a Feather.