Of Fish And Foe


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Of Fish Or Foe
"Whilst Heathcote's film doesn't always flatter, it does succeed in capturing a disappearing lifestyle at a critical point in history." | Photo: Courtesy of DOC NYC

For countless generations, members of the Pullar family have made their living from the sea. They engage in the practice of netting - stretching long nets across tidal areas traversed by wild Atlantic salmon and then setting out in a shallow boat to collect their catch. The success of commercial salmon farms means that it has been getting harder and harder to compete in the industry, however. Now brothers Kevin and John are all that's left, along with their helpers and a wee boy whose dejected gaze across the waves serves as a reminder of the importance of family tradition to personal identity.

Anglers don't like the Pullars' business, competing with them for stocks of fish not as sizeable as once they were. There are big commercial interests involved. Then there are the protesters from Sea Shepherd, well-intentioned but naive young people who blunder in with that organisation's usual lack of tact or cultural understanding. The fishermen are just as clumsy in response, one of them lashing out with homophobic insults whose real meaning and impact he has clearly never given any real thought to. Part of the response stems from fear: the protesters could easily endanger the fisherman or themselves, not understanding the rocks or the sea. The protesters keep insisting that the fisherman should take in their nets precisely on time because the sea looks calm to them; anybody with any experience of sailing will despair.

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Andy Heathcote's documentary takes in other clashes: accusations of racism, claims that the fishermen are shooting seals (their natural competitors), an insistence that they're murdering seabirds caught in their nets. We see the neck of an injured bird snapped; we see others who still have their strength carefully freed by the very men accused of meaning them harm. Is this show of mercy just for our eyes? Perhaps, but it's believable enough - there's a belief here in the old idea of stewardship, of humans caring for the environment in return for taking what they need from it. It's a very different approach from that of their corporate rivals.

Though we see them approached, those rivals don't seem keen to speak on camera. What we gather from them is that they consider the Pullars a nuisance, meddling amateurs in an industry that has moved on. They intend to put an end to their business, one way or another.

The Pullar brothers are not skilled advocates for their own cause. They don't know how to present themselves professionally and they don't know how to make themselves seem more sympathetic - they can only put across the facts about their way of life as they understand them, with the occasional bit of obfuscation - ironically - where the Sea Shepherd activists have taught them to be wary. But whilst Heathcote's film doesn't always flatter, it does succeed in capturing a disappearing lifestyle at a critical point in history. It's a film whose value is likely to increase with time and an intriguing point of a little-observed community.

Reviewed on: 25 Feb 2019
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Study of one of Scotland's last salmon fishing families as they find themselves accused of welfare violations.
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Director: Heike Bachelier, Andy Heathcote

Year: 2018

Runtime: 91 minutes

Country: UK

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