In 1913, almost a decade before the release of Nanook of the North, Robert Flaherty brought a camera with him on an expedition to the Belcher Islands of Canada’s Hudson Bay. This footage might very well have become the first feature-length documentary, if Flaherty hadn’t then accidentally burned up all 30,000 feet of film with a misplaced cigarette. Nanook was shot in 1920 in Inukjuak, on the coast of the Bay in Québec, and the Belcher Islands lost their chance at a moment in the sun.
Now, a century after Flaherty’s original expedition, Canadian filmmaker Joel Heath has brought the focus back to this small corner of the world with People of a Feather. Things have changed an awful lot in the meantime for the Inuit community of about 750 people. The modern world makes its presence known in a number of ways, from the guns now used for hunting to the teenagers’ fondness for contemporary rap music. And the most significant change: Hydro-Quebec’s damming of the rivers that feed into the Bay is destroying the ecosystem, adversely affecting the population of the eider ducks upon which the islands’ inhabitants depend.
People of a Feather is best as a nature documentary, assembled from stunning footage of these fascinating creatures flying about the islands and diving into the Bay looking for food. Heath’s initial impetus for the project was to study these ducks, whose down feathers are the warmest in the world. The Inuit community depends upon these feathers, which they can harvest from eider nets and use to stuff heavy jackets. Heath films them both flying and fishing, spending much of his time at the edge of land in a small shelter watching the images coming from his underwater camera apparatus. These are beautiful birds, diving gracefully to pluck urchins and then rising to the surface with charming nonchalance.
Yet People of a Feather cannot only be a film about the aesthetic appeal of these ducks. The increasingly urgent environmental situation on the islands is the central thrust of the documentary, making the case against Hydro-Quebec’s pumping of freshwater into the Bay during the winter time. In essence, this is an issue of water salinity. If the water in the winter is too fresh, it freezes faster and the eiders will have fewer opportunities to dive below the ice to eat and therefore survive until spring. They do not migrate. The locals do their best to crack the ice themselves to help the ducks, but that will never be enough to mitigate this disastrous alteration of the ecosystem.
Heath does his best to make this argument scientifically but also tries to expand its impact by telling the story of the Inuit community, as well. Simeonie Kavik and his family let the filmmaker into their lives and participate in this process of storytelling and illumination. People of a Feather combines intimate moments of the Kaviks eating and relaxing together with scenes of their fight to save the eider ducks, sometimes one at a time. They also monitor the salinity of the water, building a body of evidence to use against Hydro-Quebec’s denials.
The problem is that, in including the focus on the ducks themselves, the environmental science and the character of the Inuit community, People of a Feather turns into three different films. To all of this Heath adds yet another element, inspired by that footage lost in Flaherty’s cigarette fire. With the help of the Kaviks he tries to recreate the 1913 film that was never made. His friends get dressed in traditional fur clothing, hunt eiders with bolas and huddle together in an igloo. Heath is, of course, unable to shoot this on the sort of film stock Flaherty would have used, but he does put a scratchy border on his digital photography to evoke the idea of the 1910s. It almost feels authentic, but never looks it.
That said, the impulse to recreate a never-made Flaherty documentary on the Belcher Islands would probably be a decent idea for an entire film. Unfortunately, when jammed into an environmental issue project that is already having trouble balancing science, people and ducks, it’s a bit of a fatal flaw. People of a Feather has a lot going for it. The gorgeous underwater footage of eider ducks alone makes it worth seeing, along with some charming cameos by seals and polar bears. Heath captures the sense of the ecosystem and how it is changing with both scientific precision and an eye for images that both impress and illustrate. Yet he is unable to create a sense of balance among the film’s many elements, caught between his artistic impulses and the desire to issue an environmentalist call to arms as thoroughly as possible.
People of a Feather opens Friday at the Quad Cinema in New York City