The people of the Faroe Islands like to keep to themselves.

So it comes as something of a surprise that they let an outsider in with a camera crew and a series of questions.

To most people, these self-governing, reclusive villagers from a tiny set of rocky islands between Norway and Iceland are whale killers. They're just heartless fishermen who slaughter roughly 800 pilot whales each summer.

As I wrote previously, the images sit uncomfortably around the world, and that's putting it lightly. But, as documentary-makers found out during an epic, five-year project that finished recently, there's much more to the story.

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BLOOD IN THE WATER

The "grind", as locals call it, is the annual hunt captured in images of blood-red water and hundreds of dead whales. They're driven into narrow channels to be slaughtered in a practice that's illegal elsewhere, including Denmark, but not illegal here.

Though the Faroe Islands are thought to belong to Denmark, they have in fact been self-governing since 1948.

Because outsiders are so horrified, the Faroese don't welcome coverage of the annual event. But Scottish filmmaker Mike Day convinced them to let him film the grind by doing something nobody else had done or was willing to do.

He told them he didn't want to sensationalise the story or focus primarily on the slaughter. He wanted to get to know the people there and to find out what makes them tick.

His debut film, The Islands and the Whales, captures remarkable images from the front line of the annual whale drive. It shows locals covered in blood from head to toe. It shows the hunt from the boats used to steer the majestic mammals towards their deaths.

It makes for difficult viewing.

Day told the UK's Channel 4: "My job was to not sanitise or sensationalise the hunt.

"Previously a lot of the coverage had been to demonise or simplify the story there, but for me there was a much bigger story that the blood into the waters drew attention to."

'THERE'S A BIGGER STORY HERE'

One local told Day: "Millions of people see us as barbarians, like a very primitive people."

In one sense, they are primitive. They've held on to a tradition the rest of the world no longer considers acceptable. And perhaps they've held on for too long.

If not for moral reasons, the Faroese could give up the grind for health reasons, Day says.

His story is as much about the hunt as it is about the health of those who still eat whale meat — not everybody on the island does.

The filmmaker speaks with a doctor who has lived and worked on the Faroe Islands for 30 years.

He's worried that rising levels of mercury in fish and whales are poisoning a population that relies on the meat to survive.

He watches as seabirds — the other big menu item in the Faroes — are cut open to reveal plastic inside. It's a poignant reminder of the damage the rest of the world is doing to the environment.

The film includes protests from the usual suspects including the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

One member declares he will "get down in the water between a knife and a whale" and promises to stop the grind, but Day points out that such protests only encourage locals.

"Whether or not it's intended, it's perceived as gunboat diplomacy when you cruise into a place with multi-million pound vessels and skulls and crossbones," he says.

"If an Iranian ship came up the Thames and said, 'You can't eat pork because to us it's sinful and it's an intelligent animal, so we're going to picket your farms,' people would be out on the riverbank with bacon rolls, protesting. And of course that's the reaction up there."

PROTECTING THEIR WAYS

The hunt will resume again in August, despite the wishes of the outside world for it to stop. Hundreds of whales will be killed. Sea Shepherd will do its best to intervene. Pamela Anderson will have her say. Her take on Day's film is simple. She says the community has been "poisoned".

Locals will eat the produce again, despite concerns whale meat is becoming toxic.

One local man, Bjarki Dalsgaro, 28, told National Geographic the slaughter in August is about rejecting outside influence and "protecting our ways".

But it's also simply about food. The meat is broiled, air-dried and cut into thin slices before being distributed among villagers.

The whales are killed quickly, some say, as their spinal cords are cut with a lance. But many say they still suffer.