Film critic Scott Wilson reviews a documentary following the battle between animal rights campaigners and a family of Scottish salmon fishers
Of Fish and Foe – ★★★★☆
“We are one of the most hated families in Scotland” is a surprising line in a film about fishing, but by the end, it’s hard to disagree. The Pullar family have been catching salmon off the northern coasts of Scotland for generations. Increasing legal restrictions and awareness of conservation efforts mean, these days, the job isn’t without opposition. Effectively a war film, Of Fish and Foe pits fisherman against the likes of Sea Shepherd, ‘hunt saboteurs’ determined to make the job as difficult as possible.
Filmed a few years ago, anyone who kept an eye on the EU referendum knows how this story ends. Like the lead up to that vote, what the film is notable for is the amount of stark opinions and how none of them are able to reconcile with any of the others. Co-directors Andy Heathcote and Heike Bachelier set out to make a neutral film. In doing so, they allow the viewer to pick a side in the propaganda feud: the Pullars film Sea Shepherd as they disrupt operations, Sea Shepherd film the Pullars as the family hurl abuse at them. Their intimidation methods are similar to those of Scientology, getting in each other’s personal space with a camera and refusing to budge.
The Pullars are an unpleasant bunch, particularly Kevin, who gets taken to court over some of the xenophobic, homophobic, and sexist comments he directs towards the activists. In the culture, there’s a romantic notion to be had of an industry that’s as old as time, held aloft by a little family of sailors. And yet, neutrality and all, the Pullars make it difficult to sympathise with them, often gung-ho to shoot a seal or finding twisted delight in their rivalry with the activists. It would make for a different, more complicated film if the fisherman were a pleasant bunch just trying to make a living.
As our understanding of industries and social justice causes continue to develop, all of us together as a population are not all moving in the same direction. Of Fish and Foe asks some tricky questions about what it is we actually value.
There are complexities behind restrictions on salmon fishing, which hit hardest towards the end of the film. Following the money implies that efforts protesting the Pullars could be better spent directed elsewhere. The law has historically been confusing and left open to interpretation – and abuse – regarding when nets can be left in the sea and when they should be taken in. Like all things political, different sides see these points in their own ways for their own gain.
Which is to say, this reviewer’s reading of the Pullars as abrasive and difficult is an entirely subjective one. It could be argued Sea Shepherd are getting in the way of a clearly defined job which the fishermen are carrying out to the best of their abilities; the film is neutral enough to show that side of it. Why are they discriminated against when tourists are often a greater cause of damage?
Like the best documentaries, Of Fish and Foe is informative, objective, and leaves you feeling as if you’ve picked a side. A tussle over salmon might not sound very cinematic, but the filmmakers have captured a very specific battle, one where neither side is prepared to give any ground. It’s about human nature and our belief in what it is we do, and how such a thing is not necessarily universal. I found it difficult to stomach scenes of live salmon being bludgeoned to death, while others will be comfortable with it as part of the job being shown.
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It tells a Scottish story of the past versus the present and how the two don’t always make the most comfortable bedfellows. How much of an influence does where we’ve been have, or where we’re going? Scotland is a proud country, but is it proud of its salmon fishing or of its conservation attempts? As our understanding of industries and social justice causes continue to develop, all of us together as a population are not all moving in the same direction. Of Fish and Foe asks some tricky questions about what it is we actually value.
The filmmakers have an intelligent documentary on their hands, more nuanced than it first seems. Below the obvious confrontations is a question of motivation, history, and culture, all of which are tied up in both the local and the global. In this tiniest of wars is every war, of opposing ideologies and dogged determination. A proper success.