The Archipelago

An interview with Benjamin Huguet, director of THE ARCHIPELAGO
by Edoardo Lomi

Benjamin Huguet’s film The Archipelago (2016) presents a day in the life of the whole history of the Faraoe islands. A small place in a sea of change, this archipelago between Iceland and Norway is known for its impressive volcanic landscapes, its immaculate green shores, as well as the whale-hunting practices that yearly bathe them in blood. Regulated by local authorities through a system developed over more than seven hundred years, the hunt for pilot whales has in recent years attracted much attention from environmentalists worldwide, concerned over the ethics and sustainability of the practice.

Without either sensationalizing or taking any overt political stance re the violence inherent in whaling, the French filmmaker draws an anthropologically attentive and visually potent portrait of an evolving phenomenon at the heart of Faraose life.

Several factors drew Huguet to the Faraoe. As he put it, “whale hunting kind of makes sense when you look at my prior filmography,” which in many ways deals with “matters of natural resources and how people connect with their cultural identity.” Huguet has previously made films in Palestine about harvesting olives as a way into investigating the Palestinian conflict, on a power plant in Kosovo, and onion culture in France.

The Faraoe also captivated Huguet for their similarities, cultural and geographic, with his home in Brittany. But Huguet’s true inspiration for a film on whale hunting came from engaging the topic in both fiction and academic literature: Moby Dick provided Huguet with a unique artistic drive. At the same time, anthropologists who have conducted studies in the Faraoe provided him with local contacts, helping Huguet to find the future characters of the film.

Among these, environmentalists campaigning against whaling confronted Huguet with key ethical decisions: “one thing we discussed (during the editing) is to not get into any argument, avoid arguments as much as possible. All characters you see, I interviewed them, asking them how do they justify what they do, obvious questions you know. But it’s a very tricky thing for them to do (justify themselves). They don’t intellectualise if you see what I mean… it would be like a Hindu for whom the cow is a sacred animal. Why are we still eating cow? What do we “mean” by that? These are difficult questions to justify for us too.”

Huguet frames whaling as a culturally rooted behaviour, accepted as natural by those who practice them. But the film also refrains from simple moral relativism. The arguments of environmentalists from the Sea Shepherd Society—of which Huguet traces the making—seemed for him to rest more on ideological premises than any empirical evidence regarding the unsustainability of whaling itself.

“It’s not a film about if you should or should not hunt, and this (stance) overall fits with my approach to filmmaking. I don’t think of film as an aesthetic medium, it is not the best place to build an argument.”

The film instead tells the stories often missed by moralising critiques. What threatens the endurance of the Faraoese centenary traditions, more than environmentalists, appears to be technological change, and the incorporation of the archipelago into a market economy that makes meat readily available in supermarkets.

Huguet was trained in Paris in the EHESS Department of Visual Anthropology founded by Jean Rouch; his influence on The Archipelago can be glimpsed, together with that of Canadian filmmaker Pierre Perrault, at in the seamless camera movements, in the desire to capture “something that existed there, at that time,” as Huguet notes, combined with a willingness to take personal and daring initiatives, such as jumping in the cold water during the whale-hunt.

The Archipelago demonstrates a keen ability for expressing complex and multi-layered phenomena in a simple and highly sensible way—making Huguet as much a visual anthropologist as a filmmaker.

THE ARCHIPELAGO is screening at the RAI FILM FESTIVAL on FRIDAY 31 March, 1:30 PM
Information and tickets here