Iceland resumed commercial whaling in 2006, in violation of the International Whaling Commission’s moratorium on the practise. The country remains one of a small group, including Norway and Japan, who hunt whales despite the popular opposition to hurting the so-called gentle giants of the sea.
Director Friðrik Þór Friðriksson’s fiction-feature debut, ‘Skytturnar’ (literally “The Marksmen,” though it’s known as ‘White Whales’ in English), explores the concept of being at odds with the rest of mankind. The 1987 film follows whalers Grímur and Búbbi, who hitchhike to town at the end of whaling season, but come to find they have nowhere to turn. They are, to use a played-out metaphor, fish out of water. Or rather, mammals out of water.
In the deep end
Grímur, the more authoritative of the two, is played by Þórarinn Óskar Þórarinsson, a childhood friend of the film’s screenwriter, novelist Einar Kárason. Þórarinn was also the main inspiration for Einar’s novel—and later Friðrik Þór’s film—‘Djöflaeyjan’ (‘Devil’s Island’), based on his life growing up impoverished in a hut left behind by the WWII Allied occupation. His oafish companion Búbbi, who tends to introduce himself formally as Guðbjartur Hafsteinsson from Hellissandur, is played by Eggert Guðmundsson. Dimwitted and lacking impulse control, Búbbi idolises Grímur and follows his every move, no matter how objectionable.
As the duo stumble between bars, saloons and strip clubs, getting kicked out of the apartments of relatives, ex-girlfriends and fellow binge drinkers, they slowly come to realise there’s no place for them in this world. Modern society has moved on, leaving no room for obnoxious, entitled, self-absorbed men with no consideration for those around them. They’ve been thrown in at the deep end and they’re an easy target.
Masculinity and alienation
The film features no disclaimer regarding the welfare of the animals on screen, and rightly so. The first thing we see are beautiful whales, juxtaposed with flying harpoons and carcasses dragged on shore. More mammals come to harm and females are harassed, as the film is ruthless in its depiction of toxic masculinity. Composer Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson’s score is complemented by 80s pop music and, of course, whalesong. With a runtime of only 73 minutes, the film is a quick but challenging watch, where the storyline is secondary to the exploration of characters and themes of alienation in a changing society.
Friðriksson went on to direct ‘Children of Nature’, Iceland’s only Oscar-nominated feature to date, as well as several other beloved films. He even appeared in the 2006 Lars von Trier comedy ‘The Boss of It All’, as a cranky Icelandic investor looking to buy an IT company. The film was shot using a camera technique called Automavision, where the camera angles and movement are decided randomly by a computer. The cinematography gave Friðriksson’s eccentric performance an idiosyncratic quality.
‘Skytturnar’ is available on the website Icelandic Cinema Online for a measly 3€ fee. Also available are most of Friðriksson’s other films, including ‘Devil’s Island’, ‘Angels of the Universe’ and ‘Movie Days’, as well as his 1982 rockumentary ‘Rock in Reykjavík’, which features a teenaged Björk performing with her former band Tappi Tíkarrass.