Breach is an independent documentary film by LA-based filmmaker Jonny Zwick, narrated by Billy Baldwin, which recently premiered at the Santa Barbara Film Festival. Breach takes a thoughtful look at the heated issue of Icelandic Whaling, which sits at the heart of the island nation’s biggest controversy. The film examines the politics of whaling, their killing, and conservation through the thoughts and opinions of Icelanders themselves.
Notable among the interviewees are several whalers, some of who expound on the pleasures of the hunt and others who consider whaling just another kind of fishing job. Zwick gives us a rare and real insiders look, with whalers explaining the mechanics of their boats and harpoons as well as their views—seldom heard outside of whaling nations.
Despite the subject matter, Breach is not a gory or offensive film, offering gorgeous cinematography of the Iceland’s stark and rugged landscapes, amid snapshots of islander life. A short scene of a minke whale struggling in its death throes with a harpoon lodged in its body, reminds us however that concerns over the inherent cruelty associated with whaling are well founded.
The two whale species currently under fire are the often curious and relatively diminutive minke whale (around thirty feet long), and the fin whale, which at around 85 feet is the second largest living creature on our planet. Due to the hunting excesses of former decades, fin whales still remain on the endangered species list, but this has failed to protect them in Icelandic waters.
(credit J. Zwick)
Iceland has come under intense international criticism for being in violation of international laws that have been in place to protect whales from commercial hunting since 1986. In fact by the early 1990s Iceland had stopped whaling completely, as there was little market or interest. And thus matters stood for nearly 20 years. The current commercial whaling revival all seems to come down to one man: Krisjtan Loftsson, a powerful business tycoon affiliated with the Icelandic seafood company HB Grandi. Loftsson inherited the whaling company Hvalur and recommenced Icelandic whaling in 2006. Despite international and scientific outcry, Loftsson seems bent on continuing the hunt, no matter the cost.
This brings us to another peculiarity of the issue: One might assume Loftsson continues his whaling business because of profitability, yet it turns out this is not the likely case. We find out domestic interest in eating whale is diminishing in Iceland, with only 10% of the population partaking occasionally. In an effort to develop a market for the unwanted product, whale meat has been finding its way into luxury brand pet food. Endangered fin whale meat is not even eaten in Iceland, all of it being shipped overseas to either Norway or Japan, even at great cost, as European ports do not allow the illegally harvested endangered fin whale meat to dock. When the meat finally makes its way to Japan, it ironically ends up joining other surplus in cold storage there, as Japan is also experiencing low public interest in eating whale. But the killing continues. Between 2009-2014 Loftsson’s company killed 544 whales.
All this may leave viewers wondering why such a glaringly unprofitable venture persists and while part of the answer may lie between the not unusual connections between the interests of big business and politicians in key decision-making positions, whaling is currently supported by nearly sixty percent of Icelanders. By accident or design, a connection has been formed in the minds of the islanders between their fierce independence as a sovereign nation and a national identity that has become entangled with the whaling issue.
Science student Iris Bjork Gurnarsduttir, gives a valuable youthful voice on this complex issue, struggling between concerns over conservation and a sense of national pride and identity. However, views from the general Icelandic public are mixed and some feel that whaling damages the market for Icelandic fish and products, causing un-wanted political problems for the country, and raising questions about how this can be justified by the agenda of just one business man.
Meanwhile, tourism in Iceland is growing swiftly, its breathtaking natural wonders drawing increasing crowds and some 25% of these visitors come to experience whale watching, making Iceland one of Europe’s premiere whale watching destinations. In fact, 2013 marked the year that tourism surpassed fishing as Iceland’s largest export. Unsurprisingly the growing popularity of whale watching has created tension with the whaling industry, as increasing demands are made to create marine sanctuaries in coastal areas where whale watchers can operate without crossing paths with the whaling ships dragging their grisly catch ashore. Both are also aware that the more curious or “friendly” whales, most likely to approach whale-watching boats—are also the most likely to be harpooned.
The plot twists and thickens further as it is revealed that the primary consumers of whale meat in Iceland appear to be visiting tourists, including some who also go whale watching. Many local restaurants offer whale meat for curious tourists to sample, much to the distress of certain local whale watching tour operators. In response, nearly 60 restaurants now proclaim themselves “whale friendly” and refuse to serve whale meat in their establishments, understanding that eating up a source of good revenue is perhaps not the best idea.
(credit J. Zwick)
A thoughtful and eye-opening journey, Breach stands to encourage useful discussion among Icelanders regarding this complex issue. This timely and balanced film gives voice to many different Icelandic opinions and also begs the would-be visitor to consider the role their sampling of exotic mega fauna may have on the precarious lives of Icelandic whales and the associated politics. Meanwhile the killing continues, with a 5-year kill quota of 1145 more minke whales and 770 endangered fin whales having been issued in 2013. The whalers have now further set their sights on Humpback whales, hoping to see this species added to the whaling hit list. If the fate of whales is of any concern to you, then Breach is 45 minutes very well spent.