People of a Feather

Documentary about ducks in Hudson Bay investigates our role in the cycle of life


“People of a Feather,” a feature-length documentary about eider ducks, talks about the Sanikiluaq islanders who rely on them and the challenges they face adapting to changing sea ice ecosystem in the Belcher Islands. (FILE PHOTO)

Postmedia News

The movie may talk a lot about feathers, but Joel Heath’s documentary about the changing Arctic has the weight of a freight train.

An intricately layered story that stitches the viewer into the very fabric of our nation, as well as the life cycle itself, People of a Feather begins with a simple mystery.

In the late 1990s, the Inuit living on the Belcher Islands in Hudson Bay noticed a massive die-off of eider ducks. Thousands of birds with the coveted down littered the sea ice, eventually prompting a scientific investigation by the Canadian Wildlife Service.

Graduate biologist Joel Heath was part of the ensuing study, and for the first few months of his assignment, he sat in a white blind on the ice, watching birds dive for food underwater.

He shot groundbreaking footage of the ducks diving for food, and noticed the critical relationship between food availability and open sea ice, which allows the birds to swim and dive for urchins.

Eider ducks can only hold their breath for so long, and if the food source is too far from an open hole, they essentially starve — very, very slowly.

We see all this horror in Heath’s film, and it’s truly depressing: Watching a bird struggle to live, only to watch its life extinguish before our eyes, is one of those experiences that leaves you feeling drained and dirty — complicit in humanity’s arrogant mistakes.

Yet, for all the emotional hardship of the experience, we also feel better prepared for the challenges ahead, and that’s where Heath’s documentary goes beyond being a straight-ahead message movie, or a one-sided activist documentary.

Skilfully weaving this latent sense of human responsibility into a larger quilt of human history, we can find strength in our unstoppable ability to adapt and problem-solve. These brilliant facets of Homo sapiens are highlighted through the community of Sanikiluaq and its resident population of hunters, carvers and kids.

In the opening frames, an Inuit narrator tells us the Belcher Islands are the birthplace of documentary film, since it’s where Robert Flaherty first started shooting First Nations people living off the Arctic tundra. His film, Nanook of the North, would have included the people of Sanikiluaq, but the footage was lost.

“Our story was never told,” says the voice of Inuit history.

Heath decides to pick up on this compelling piece of cinematic history, and eventually fills the hole, by re-enacting daily routine as it would have been 100 years ago. Recruiting the elders and young adults of the community to recreate their old clothes, sledges, and the hunting techniques they used for millennia, Heath broadens the scope of his film in a way that seems to match the vastness of the ice itself.

Void of any human architecture, this white and blue landscape seems and feels timeless. Yet, over the course of the film, using stunning time-lapse photography that shows satellite imagery of changing ice formations, as well as the transforming tundra itself, we begin to notice the slight variations in the snow and ice.

You can hear it. Whether it’s the sound of the snow underfoot, from a dry squeak to a wet scrunch, or the rumble of sea ice crashing into itself, everything in this movie begins to speak its own language.

Heath’s real victory as a filmmaker is that he makes us city folk hear it.

He accomplishes this rather sophisticated task through the pacing, and his insistence on certain recurring images of the ducks in their natural environment.

The whole tone matches the sparseness of the landscape, and we eventually enter a slightly altered state through long takes and sparse narration. The shift in stance lends us a different vantage point on the world around us, as well as our innate partnership with the planet.

By the time we realize how all the eider ducks died — and witness the heartbreaking sight of starving, drowning birds — we feel connected, and that’s key.

Where many environmentally motivated movies make human beings the villain, Heath — ever the scientist — reminds us we are part of the big picture. We are all part of the big life cycle.

What makes the film particularly urgent, however, is the changing nature of the Earth’s hydrological cycle as a result of continuing hydroelectric developments.

According to Heath, as well as every elder in the community, the problem of starving ducks is the result of an increased amount of warm, fresh water pouring into Hudson Bay during the winter, as water behind dams is released to generate power.

Fresh water and salt water freeze at different temperatures and create different ice consistencies. Too much fresh water in the system not only causes the ice to freeze faster, and therefore limit the amount of swimmable open water for the ducks, it actually results in changing ocean currents around the globe.

Fresh water draining into Hudson Bay, and ice melt in the Arctic, are the engine that keeps the Gulf Stream flowing.

For a movie that starts off talking about ducks, People of a Feather ends up negotiating nothing less than man’s place, and our role, in the entire life cycle. It’s an undeniably elegant feat, and one that could very well reframe the way you live the rest of your life.

Best of all, for a movie that could have been bleak, People of a Feather keeps hope aloft with the palpable power of the human spirit, as communicated by the community of Sanikiluaq.

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