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Sunday, February 2, 2014

DVD Review: People Of A Feather

People Of A Feather is a documentary about the people and animals of the Arctic region, particularly about how changing sea ice is affecting the eider ducks and in turn those people who live in the region. I’ve never seen a documentary quite like this one. It has a sort of relaxed tone through much of it, which works to pull you in. It builds by mood and images, immersing us in the area and the culture before giving us too much information through narration.

The film does have just a bit of narration at the beginning: “Traditionally, we move with the seasons, following the animals… Our islands lay undiscovered by the modern world until 1913, when explorer Robert Flaherty arrived.” Flaherty began his documentary film career in the region, but his footage was lost. The narrator tells us: “Our story was never seen…Now we have created new footage of our past based on our memories and oral history, because by seeing how we have changed we can better adapt to the future.” It’s an interesting set-up. And we see two people in coats made of feathers travel by canoe to one of the islands and go looking for eggs, then build a fire and cook the eggs. This is done without any narration or dialogue.

Then by contrast we see how people go about the same tasks in present day - traveling by motorboat, gathering the eggs and down. The dialogue of the scene is what the camera picks up of their conversations as they go about their work. “Eider down in seaweed is the best kind to pick.”

Later we learn that “the eiders move with the sea ice, looking for good feeding areas among the open water habitats.” But after thousands of ducks died one winter, a study began on “how changing sea ice was affecting the ability of eider ducks to get through the winter.” The changes have been brought on, at least in part, by the building of several dams and reservoirs, and by the dumping of fresh water at the wrong time of year.

There are some gorgeous shots in the film. The sunset footage near the beginning is beautiful. And there is plenty of great nature footage of the eiders and other birds. Again, most of this footage is without any narration, just some nice instrumental music. There are excellent underwater shots of ducks diving to the bottom for food, and then rising again to the surface. There is also impressive footage of thousands of eiders taking flight. For me, the film’s most affecting footage is that of the ducks.

There is some footage that is difficult to watch. Early on there is a scene of men hunting the ducks and then cooking their meat. And I could really do without the footage of the seal being killed and gutted. A warning: that scene goes on for a while and doesn’t pull back. There is also some footage of how folks in the area live, and some of it feels a bit pointless, particularly the bit where some young guys in the area pretend they’re in a music video.

But overall, it's a truly interesting and unusual documentary.

Special Features

The DVD contains some bonus footage. There are five separate scenes, totaling approximately twenty-one minutes. All of them are narrated. One scene gives more background information on the area and other animals of the area, with some great nature shots. Another details a bit of the history of the area, including information on Flaherty and some early photographs. The most interesting scene for me is that on the eiders. It provides more information on the birds, showing us the differences in the looks of the adult male, the adult female and the young. There is some great footage, as well as aerial still photos, showing their large numbers.

There are three other scenes, under the heading “Behind The Scenes.” These deal with the recreation scenes of the film, and total approximately fourteen minutes. They are not narrated. The first shows the community building the two igloos which are used in the film. The second shows people making the eider skin parkas worn in those sections of the film. (This one is a bit difficult to watch.) The third is on the making of the seal skin kayak.

There is also a music video of a song titled “SKQ” by a band called Arctic Records. It’s not a good song.

People Of A Feather was directed by Joel Heath, and is scheduled to be released on DVD on February 25, 2014 through First Run Features.

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