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People of a Feather: A Film about Survival in a Changing Arctic cover photo

People of a Feather: A Film about Survival in a Changing Arctic 2011

Highly Recommended

Distributed by First Run Features, 630 Ninth Avenue, Suite 1213, New York, NY 10036; 212-243-0600
Produced by Joel Heath
Directed by Joel Heath
DVD, color, 88 min.



General Adult
Climate Change, Biodiversity, Global Politics, Arctic, Inuit, Hydroelectric Power, Ocean Currents, James Bay, Canada

Date Entered: 05/21/2014

Reviewed by Andrew Jenks, California State University, Long Beach

Following the life of the Inuit in the far north of Canada, this film illustrates the dramatic impact of global climate change – as well as the ingenuity of those who inhabit the northern climes most directly affected by those alterations.

The film shadows a group of Inuit on seal hunts and as they travel to collect duck eggs and eider down from nests. The group is careful to not harvest too many eggs and down, as they are aware that they would be destroying the proverbial goose laying their golden eggs. As the Inuit narrator says: “The technology of the eider stores our energy and keeps out the cold.” It is a lesson in ecological consciousness born of necessity, and something so clearly lacking in the supposedly more advanced societies.

In addition to providing a window into climate change and its impact on the Arctic, this film also reveals the fascinating ways that the Inuit have integrated into the modern world yet also retained their links to the natural environment. The shots of wildlife, and of the Inuit at work hunting, making down coats, fashioning tools, and preparing for a seal hunt, are engrossing. Yet there are also wonderfully evocative images of Inuit teens with sideways baseball caps and parkas performing their own Artic hip-hop.

The film originated with a scientist who made his way to the Hudson Bay to study the Arctic eider. He came to investigate the large die-offs of eider ducks and sought out Inuit elders for advice. The elders follow the formation of the ice like Las Vegas bookies studying professional sports teams. The scientist, also the film’s creator, and the amiable local Inuits began to pool their resources to study the problem, fusing local knowledge to scientific observation and instruments and untangling the complex interrelationships between ice, water currents, and the Arctic wildlife. That alliance, which has produced a far more nuanced picture of climate change, contrast with earlier periods in Western science, which eschewed local knowledge in favor of the knowledge produced by those with advanced degrees.

Hydroelectric power, often touted as a green alternative, is the primary culprit in the decline of the eider. The damming of rivers leading into the Hudson Bay, and the accumulation of those waters in reservoirs, has warmed the fresh water that flows into the Bay, altered the volume of water flows and currents and changed the balance of salt and fresh water. Paradoxically, because of the increase in fresh water released from reservoirs, there is actually more ice on the Bay at unexpected times – but it is ice formed from fresh water, which is less stable than salt-water ice. The eider feed on sea urchins and mussels in the places where the ice opens up, but the unpredictably of the ice has made it far more difficult for them to locate these Arctic “oases”, and when they do the gaps in the sea ice often quickly disappear, leaving the creatures stranded and starving.

Having unraveled the mystery of the eider die-offs, scientists and the Inuit have attempted, with little success, to halt the aggressive development of hydroelectric power plants in Northern Canada. When all these projects are done the result will be the complete transformation of the sea-ice eco-system and hydrological cycles, which support the populations of seals and eider ducks upon which Inuit life is based. “The ice is harder to understand now,” says one Inuit, as it is for all the animals (whales, seals, fox, Polar Bears, and birds) in the Canadian far north whose mental maps of gaps in the ice no longer provide a reliable guide.

The effects of progress for the Inuit and Arctic wildlife are literally disorienting, making their environment illegible and unpredictable, in ways that have long become normal for those who reside in human-built environments. But unlike the Inuit, the rest of us rarely notice the impacts of human interventions into the natural world, including the use of hydroelectric power plants, often billed as clean energy but exacting other heavy environmental costs. While it may not stop the hydroelectric power industry, which seems to have its way with the Canadian government, this film may help many to see and think like the Inuit.

Awards

  • Winner, Korean Green Film Festival in Seoul
  • Winner ,Berlin Independent Film Festival
  • Winner, San Francisco Ocean Film Festival
  • Winner, Vancouver International Film Festival