“People of a Feather”
Belcher Islands in Hudson Bay, Canada is the home of the Inuit, People of a Feather. This film is made up of footage from seven winters in the Arctic which bring together present, past and future. This is also the home of the Eider Duck that produces the warmest feathers in the world, Eider Down. Because of the warmth provided by the down, both the duck and the Inuit are able to survive the very cold Arctic winters (and I complain about Boston!). Now the people are facing challenges with the changing sea ice and ocean currents that have disrupted them and are caused by the huge hydroelectric dams that provide power to New York and the east coast of North America. This is a film that calls us to action to find a way to implement energy solutions that work with Mother Nature.
Joel Heath is a Vancouver biologist who spent seven winters on the Belcher Islands to make this documentary and the result, even though it carriers an important ecological message, is beautiful photography that seems mystical. We see the marine-life and the beauty of the life of the residents.
The main subject is the eider duck who aside from producing the warm down is a barometer for northern environmental shifts. Heath uses both modern and staged historical sequences that show the Inuit way of life (reenacted with the community) and we learn that the islands’ people still gather eiderdown to make their parkas. They gently remove it from the nests, always leaving some behind. We also learn 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 shows us the profound changes to the ocean currents and sea-ice formation through time-lapse imagery as a haunting soundtrack plays. We also hear local hunters talk about how their centuries-old ways of hunting and fishing are being affected.
Director Heath is able to make the statistics more human by showing the pride and strength of the Sanikiluaq community. The film sometimes seems a bit anthropological, but we get to know a people that the world barely knows exist. Extended families now get together 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 and therefore humanity’s touch on the environment should be as light as a feather.
The documentary pulls us in with poignant mystical images of eider flocks in the skies in a majestic and awesome stream of life. We see them diving deep in the cold waters for clams and sea urchins; and witness an Inuit hunter paddling his boat amid large hunks of floating white ice. Here there are traditions of gathering eider eggs to eat and down for clothing along with hunting and field dressing a seal are now in jeopardy of being lost.
Heath traces the cause of the problems including fewer open pools where the ducks can dive for clams and other food sources. Hydroelectric projects near Hudson Bay provide power but also to many cities in North America, but these companies also cause runoff from rivers stored behind the dams in the winter months. This messes up ocean currents and has a dire effect on sea ice ecosystems in the bay.
Heath gives us an up-close look at the fears of one Inuit community over their survival. Here we graphically see the impact of hydroelectric dam operations on the Arctic environment and the Inuit culture.