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Detail of a scene from the documentary "People of a Feather" (Joel Heath)
Detail of a scene from the documentary "People of a Feather" (Joel Heath)

Movie review

People of a Feather: Life on thin ice Add to ...

  • Country USA
  • Language English

A strange phenomenon is happening in the cold of Hudson Bay, involving small, beautiful eider ducks.

The resilient birds stay the winter and are a key element in traditional Inuit life, hunted sparingly by residents for their meat, eggs and their exquisitely warm feathers. Yet in the last decade or so, they have been dying off in unusually large numbers.

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The biologist-turned-filmmaker Joel Heath has been studying the problem for seven years, tracking and photographing the ducks while he sits in a tiny, makeshift shelter on the ice.

His underwater footage of them in his documentary People of a Feather is breathtaking, as they swim down to eat from the sea bottom and then rise up like corks, the backs of their heads very sweetly curved. (Those who share a particular fondness for ducks will understand where I’m coming from.)

When he puts himself in the film, Heath is casual, showing the easy banter he has with friends in and around the south end of the sea in Sanikiluaq, Nunavut. Older residents know all too well that the ducks are dying because of the dramatically changing ice, as if all laws of nature are going crazy.

The destruction of the North and unknowable extent of the damage is currently being well documented in a wave of films, including director Zacharias Kunuk’s Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change. To this, People of a Feather primarily adds new data and observations, rather than inventing a new cinematic language for presenting it on film.

Yet what incredible detail Heath brings: Besides the underwater footage, he records seasonal changes in time-lapse photography that’s far more beautiful in scale and drama than a quick description can do justice. And importantly, he puts Inuit locals in the film in a very carefully paced way, allowing the different rhythms of Northern life to dictate the flow of the film. He takes the time to watch hunters waiting for the birds to pass by and gives local kids in baseball caps a chance to rap on camera, portraying the generational divide between the old traditions and modern ways, giving the young a voice too.

However, everything comes back to the looming mystery about the ducks and the erratic ice. The massive hydro dams in the North are to blame. Come winter, the greater demand for electricity in the South causes the reservoirs to release more water.

Fresh water released in the winter from the reservoirs is relatively warmer and thereby effects the ice. Yet, that fresh water also freezes more quickly than sea water. The results are therefore far less stable ice and water currents, which Heath says is still little understood. The danger is that these disrupted currents change those in the Atlantic, resulting in much larger changes in ocean currents which, for instance, warm Western Europe.

Like canaries in a coal mine, the perils of the soft, small eider ducks portend much larger concerns. Taken in conjunction with so much other evidence out there, it’s clear that these species in these various documentaries are all demonstrating, in life or death terms, a very similar story.

People of a Feather

  • Directed by Joel Heath
  • Classification: NA

On Friday, People of a Feather begins a limited run at Toronto’s Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.

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