Film Review: People Of A Feather

The Inuit community on Hudson Bay struggles with technology and climate change.

With footage stretching back to 2002, People of a Feather tracks changes brought to Sanikiluaq, a remote community on the Belcher Islands in Canada’s Hudson Bay. Although beautifully shot, this leisurely documentary may be too soft-spoken to gain the attention its subject deserves.

Using time-lapse and underwater photography, director and cinematographer Joel Heath brings an austere Arctic landscape to life, capturing moments both beautiful and brutal. He takes an oblique approach to the material, first setting up a contrast between Inuit life a hundred years ago and today's world of ATVs and hip-hop.

It's an interesting idea, especially since Robert Flaherty filmed on the Belcher Islands in 1914-15. That footage was lost before the documentarian embarked on Nanook of the North. Heath re-stages some of the scenes in Nanook, but gradually drops the connections to both Flaherty and the past.

The bulk of People of a Feather instead splits its time between wildlife footage and ethnographic material. The former, which includes remarkable shots of eider ducks feeding on the Hudson Bay floor, would fit comfortably onto a PBS "Nova" episode. The latter—Inuit elders hunting and field-dressing seals, building wooden sleds, sewing parkas—has a distinctly educational feel.

It takes Heath a relatively long time to get to his main point: Climate change and encroaching technology are threatening a traditional way of life, as well as the environment as a whole. Warmer, shorter winters make the ice pack thin and unstable. On top of that, hydroelectric dams are releasing fresh water into Hudson Bay, affecting the entire ecosystem.

The dams tend to release water in the fall, when demand for electricity rises. The industry is essentially reversing the seasons in the Bay, which drains 40 percent of Canada. Since fresh water freezes before salt water, eider ducks can be trapped in ice, or cut off from their feeding grounds.

The Inuit and environmentalists successfully protested against some previous hydroelectric projects, but a massive new system went online in 2010. The industry promised comprehensive studies of the system's impact on the Bay; these have yet to take place.

Another director might have focused narrowly on the hydroelectric industry, but in People of a Feather Heath takes a more measured approach. In the process, he portrays the people of Sanikiluaq with sensitivity and insight. Their lives are what give this documentary its real value.