A passionate depiction of life on the Faroe Islands, containing graphic footage of traditional whale hunting, Benjamin Huguet’s short film The Archipelago won the award for Best Student Film at 2015’s DocFest. We spoke to Benjamin about the film and his craft.
What is your filmmaking background and how did you come to make this film?
I used to be a photographer and cameraman – a journalist, actually – working in news. I made this film during my study at the National Film and Television School. For some reason I have always found myself making films about natural resources. I have made a film about the olive harvest in Palestine, about shale gas fracking, fishing, onions…I’ve always been interested by these questions. And I read Moby Dick before doing this film. It really had a strong influence on me. I thought there are many things in that book that I have always wanted to express in a film. I was really inspired by this book. There are several scenes in this film that come directly from Moby Dick.
After reading Moby Dick, I started looking for a place where people would still hunt big animals, in a very practical manner, without using modern industry. I started looking for such a place and very quickly I found out about the Faroe Islands.
So it was the whales that drew you to the Faroe Islands?
Oh yes, absolutely.
In terms of both preparation and filming, how much time did you spend on the project?
I would say about nine months. I think researching and thinking about the project maybe took me three months, then I spent maybe two months on the islands, then the post-production took four months.
How did you choose the participants? Did you have any trouble getting them involved?
I focused on three characters. One was quite obvious because he was the head of the whaling society. I got in touch with him very early and he was one of the first people I met. Gaining his trust wasn’t too difficult. For Trondur, the old man, the artist, I had been told about but I thought he sounded too clichéd for me, as a character. I didn’t really want to get involved with him. Then I met him and I realised that we had many things to talk about, he and I. He was also inspired by Moby Dick and as we talked about the book I realised that we really had something in common, some kind of imaginative universe or space that we were sharing. The young man, he was a friend of a friend. It was not easy to find him but when I met him I felt he had a very good vibe. We met in a café and I told him about my project. He said ‘we’re going to do something special on the cliff, if you want to come’ and I said ‘alright, let’s do that’.
Said cliff scene [where we watch sheep herders scaling impressively steep hills] looks a bit precarious. Were there any logistical difficulties filming that?
Yes, quite a few, because the path was very steep and narrow; most of the time you only had space to put one foot in front of the other. It was very impressive – and very scary as well. You had to take your time, one step at a time, and you have to pay attention to every gesture you make. Take the camera, put it there, take the mic, put it there…always trying to keep steady and sometimes holding on to the cliff so as not to fall. You had to prepare the frame before filming it. So it was a bit tricky but just tricky, not impossible.
The scenes of whale slaughter are filmed in detail but also in a neutral way that I found very interesting. What sort of response are you expecting to these scenes?
It was difficult because of course it’s a very controversial topic and people, rightly, are very sensitive to animal rights and animal welfare. So we knew it would be a very difficult scene to edit and to show, and I think that’s why it comes in the middle of the film. We wanted to put it in context. You enter into a world and you see what kind of world it is and THEN you have the whaling scene and you are capable of reading it in the way the Faroese people would.
Did you have specific allegiances in the film? Obviously you don’t really follow the Sea Shepherd [anti-whaling] activists. They are there but you don’t give them a voice. Are you on the side of the Faroese people?
No, I think not engaging with Sea Shepherd was a decision we made at the beginning, me and my production team, because we didn’t want to get into an argument, a discussion about whether whaling is right or wrong. You have arguments for and against, but I think that film is never a good medium to show such a discussion. We decided to go to the extreme and not bring any of the arguments into the film. I did try to engage with Sea Shepherd and they were very kind to me, let me hang around with them a bit, but I didn’t find anything that I wanted to investigate film-wise.
So I decided to stay on the side of the Faroese people, but I wouldn’t call it an allegiance. They never had any control over my film, it was an independent production, one hundred percent. I think I’ve tried to portray something which was very hard to see, without hiding anything. The whaling scene is a hard scene and I don’t think I’ve downplayed it.
What will you be working on next?
I’m working in London as an independent editor and cameraman, and now I’m making a short film about a funny project from the 80s which aimed at making radioactive cats that would change colour in the presence of radioactive waste.
What advice would you give to someone who wanted to make documentary films?
That’s an interesting question…Here at the festival you realise that a lot of people, even the best filmmakers, struggle to make their films. In a way it’s almost encouraging because everybody is facing the same difficulties. Documentary doesn’t cost a lot now, so it’s just about making a film. My friend said the other day ‘nobody is going to ask you to make a film, nobody’s going to knock at your door’. So if you want to make a film just take a camera and start filming. If you take this first step then you find in a strange way that things are getting organised around you that push you to make the second step, and then further and further. The first step is always difficult because we don’t know what we’re doing. It’s always like a jump into the unknown.