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Mesmerising documentary on the Inuits’ relationship with wildlife

Man and wildlife contend with the turmoil wrought by civilisation's encroachment on the unforgiving Arctic, in the mesmerising environmental documentary ‘People of a Feather'.

It shows at 2pm on October 19 as part of Bermuda Docs.

Directed by scientist Joel Heath — whose footage is condensed from seven bitter winters on the remote Belcher Islands in Hudson Bay, Canada — the film lets the landscape speak for itself.

Abundant time-lapse catches the shifting colours and icy features of the islands, and their Inuit inhabitants first appear in a haunting voice-over in the native accent.

A minimal soundtrack ranges from the simple, twanging indigenous music, to an unforgettable sequence of native people break-dancing to hip-hop in the desolate streets and sparsely-furnished rooms of their settlements.

Heath's 90-minute film makes clever use the discovery of the islands by outside explorers 100 years ago as a premise for jumps between the modern-day Inuit, and their lives a century back.

Kayaks and winter clothing fashioned from the pelts of ducks are juxtaposed with the rubber gear and motorboats of the present-day Inuit.

If you've ever wondered where eiderdown comes from, you'll find the answer here: the eider ducks are as central to the life in the Canadian territory of Nunavut as are the buffalo for native peoples further south.

And the dizzying flocks of the eiders that thunder across the ice are every bit as incredible as the herds of any hoofed prey: profusions of ducks overwhelm the sky, even darkening the horizon.

Heath, an ecologist, spent countless hours quietly watching the eiders — and his patiently observing eye is in evidence throughout this film.

His underwater footage of the eiders plunging and wriggling through green-tinted waters far beneath the ice, to forage on urchins and other sea life, gives the birds a dreamy, almost alien quality.

For the Inuit, the eiders — whose down warms them as it does the animals themselves — are essential to life, and the far-reaching havoc caused by the damming of the region's rivers has proven disastrous to both populations.

About 40 percent of Canada's water drains through the Hudson Bay — an inconceivable volume that affects currents far out into the Atlantic.

But hydroelectric projects have interrupted the flow, changing the behaviour of the ice, seemingly with no thought for the consequences.

The film includes some harrowing scenes of eider populations wiped out when the polynya — oasis-like openings in the sea ice — freeze shut, sealing the birds off from their food.

For the eiders congregated at these openings, man's disruption spells an instant death sentence. Some of the most affecting footage in the documentary shows Inuit coming to the rescue of the birds, hacking open the ice so the eiders can feed.

The same Inuit who lie in wait to shoot eiders for food — and who enact the duck hunts of old with traditional thrown weapons — see the eiders are part of themselves.

“The ice is harder to understand now,” elders observe as the camera follows the planning of hunts, the tracking of seal and other food across the treacherous ice, where a misstep proves fatal.

On the one hand is the technology of the eider: the world's warmest feather. On the other are the colossal hydroelectric dams which warm the cities far to the south, carelessly altering the landscape far beyond.

The contrast between old and new allows us to watch the cultural evolution of those who, like the eiders, call this stark and shifting landscape home.

Produced in 2012, ‘People of a Feather' won Best Documentary at New Zealand's Reel Earth Film Festival, as well as the Award of Excellence at this year's International Film Festival for the Environment, Health, and Culture in Indonesia.

Breaking the ice: An eider duck dives to feed in the film People of a Feather

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Published October 09, 2013 at 9:00 am (Updated October 08, 2013 at 9:40 pm)

Mesmerising documentary on the Inuits’ relationship with wildlife

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