GUGA HUNTERS OF NESS (2011) – Documentary Retroview

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In his first documentary feature, Scottish filmmaker Mike Day chronicles an age-old tradition that’s observed in August of each year by the hale and hearty men of Ness. Known as Niseach men, they live in a small, remote town on the northern tip of the Isle of Lewis, one of the Outer Hebrides chain off the western coast of Scotland.

Guga is the name given to young gannets that are at the right age to be eaten. Younger birds are too fatty, and the elders are too lean and tough.

Gannets are a protected species, and the small band of guga hunters from Ness — limited to ten in number — have been granted a special permit for the annual hunt by the European Community because it has been going on for generations and guga was once a primary food for the remote community of Ness. Now the hunters are allowed to catch and kill no more than 2,000 birds annually. They use the same tools and techniques used by successive generations of their forebears.

And they divide their catch for distribution to their community, for whom the guga are a fought-over delicacy.

A Treacherous Adventure

The hunt entails an arduous journey in the community’s aging trawler across tempestuous seas to a tiny and isolated island known as Sula Sgeir, which is little more than a steep and craggy hunk of rock that’s jutting out of the water in the middle of the North Atlantic, about midway between the Isle of Lewis and the Faroe Islands. Sula Sgeir has no no beaches, and the waves that crash constantly against the mountainous island’s steeply rocky base are so rough that it’s nigh unto impossible to anchor off shore for very long. So, even the unloading of necessary equipment and provisions into a rubber dingy for transfer from trawler to island is a treacherous task.

The team of hunters stay on the island for two weeks, toiling day and night to prepare the catch for transport back to Ness.

The Ritual of the Hunt

Traversing the trails that were forged centuries ago by their ancestors, the team of ten hunters haul their gear to Sula Sgeir’s summit. Amists age-old cairns built by their forebears, they camp out in several stone shelters constructed by past generations so long ago nobody knows the date of their origin.

The hunters work day and night to catch and process the guga. They scale Sula Sgeir’s cliffs to catch the young birds, using a long pole with with metal jaws that fit around the young birds’ necks. Once plucked from their nests, the guga are killed instantly.

Processing involved plucking the birds’ feathers by hand, then singeing any remaining down from their bodies. Their wings are cut off. They are gutted. The meat is then stacked in round mounds. In the end it is transported down from the summit in sluices, and then transferred to the trawler to be brought back to Ness. It’s a well-practiced ritual and it is fascinating to watch.

Documenting an Age Old Tradition

There is a decidedly ethnographic air to this film, and a striking sense of authenticity. Mike Day is the second filmmaker given permission to document the hunt. The last and only documentary made about the guga hunt was shot for the BBC and aired on network in 1959. Day opens his film with some of the footage and the voice over narration from that vintage black and white documentary, and with it he immediately establishes the historic and cultural significance of the hunt, and the extraordinary hardships endured by the hunters on their annual adventure. He also gives viewers a reference so that they can see that very little has changed in the way that the hunt is carried out.

Day’s lead character is the man who currently leads the hunt, a grocer from Ness who fears that the hunt and the community’s traditional way of life are dying out. He has a thick Scottish burr, but speaks slowly enough that you can understand everything he’s saying. He and Day show you around Ness, so you get a sense of what daily life is like in the remote community and on the sparsely populated Isle of Lewis.

The scenery is spectacular and so is the cinematography. Day’s camera delivers beautiful sweeps of landscape, and captures the small captivating details of his characters at home, at work and on the hunt. Most remarkable are the shots at sea, which keep the horizon steady, yet pitch and roll with the waves. You are in that boat.

The Filmmaker’s Adventure

Day was given extraordinary access to shoot the hunt in progress and the processing of the guga, but he wasn’t allowed to stay on Sula Sgeir with the hunters. Nor was he permitted to travel with them in their trawler.

In fact, Day chartered and skippered a sail boat so that he could follow the trawler and make this documentary. He slept aboard the sailboat and ferried himself to the island every day so that he could film the guga hunters.

This film is a remarkable accomplishment, one that took extraordinary determination and not a little courage. At one point Day’s sailboat capsized in the rough seas. And, while the boat’s steering gear was damaged, Day and his three-man sailing crew/production team were at the mercy of the sea.

Some of the filmmaker’s behind the scenes experiences are included in the documentary — but not so much that they becomes distracting or steer the story of the guga hunters off course.

Here’s To Hale and Hearty Filmmaking

The Guga Hunters of Ness is a wonderful documentary about stout-hearted men, and it is made by a stout-hearted filmmaker. The film transports you to a far away place, allows you to peer into the lives and traditions of the people who live there, and actually shows you the world around them through their eyes. It is about community, and tradition, and changing times. It’s a must see, and on as large a screen as you can find for it.

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Film details:

  • Title: The Guga Hunters of Ness
  • Director: Mike Day
  • Produced by Ewan Angus, Mike Day and Andrew Maas
  • Writer: Mike Day
  • Cinematography: Mike Day
  • Film Editing: Mike Day and Timo Langer
  • Original Score: Dead Rat Orchestra
  • U.S. Theatrical Premiere: February 4, 2011 at Union Docs in NYC
  • DVD Release Date: January 2013
  • Running Time: 59 mins.
  • Parental Advisory: Content advisory for parents
  • Production Country: Scotland
  • Production Location: Scotland, Isle of Lewis, Sula Sgeir
  • Language: English
  • Production Company: Intrepid Cinema
  • Distribution Company: Intrepid Cinema
  • Official Website
  • Trailer
  • Vimeo release date: March 12, 2013
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