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'People of a Feather' Doc Unveils Green Technology's Dark Side

24 Jan, 2014 By: Erik Gruenwedel

While much has been written about industry and mankind’s impact on climate change, First Run Features’ Canadian documentary People of a Feather explores the subtle effects burgeoning hydroelectric power plays on the indigenous Inuit people and eider ducks living in Canada’s Belcher Islands, where temperatures can reach 30 degrees below zero in the winter.

Seen as a green alternative to coal-fired and diesel generation power plants, large-scale hydroelectric projects near the James and Hudson bays were approved by the Canadian government beginning in the 1970s. Spring run-off is held in reservoirs and behind dams, released in the winter when energy demand in the burgeoning metropolitan areas in the south is highest. At the time, little was known about the impacts these large-scale dams would have on ecosystems.

Enter Joel Heath, who has a Ph.D. in quantitative ecology, and came to the area in 2002 to study eider ducks. The ducks appear to be a resilient species, able to withstand the arctic climate and survive by diving to the bottom of the frigid waters for crustaceans and mollusks, with mussels being a favored food.

To the Inuit, the eiders (along with seals) represent a food source, with the eider down providing a soft and warm nest lining harvested for filling pillows, quilts and coats.

Unfortunately, as development of hydroelectric power flourished, the impact of reservoirs and dams reduced the flow of natural water currents — vital to keeping ice buildup in check during the winter. Without the currents, the ice buildup leaves the ducks with diminishing access points to water and food.
“The ice is harder to understand now,” Inuit hunter, sculptor and doc co-writer Simeonie Kavik says in the film.

Heath worked with Kavik, his three-generation family, and other residents of Sanikiluaq (population 800) developing time-lapse monitoring technology and an underwater camera system to capture the first images of eiders diving below the sea ice. To help share these stories, Heath began a five-year process to create his first feature documentary.

People of a Feather will be released on DVD Feb. 25 at $27.95. Bonus features include featurettes about community-based monitoring, eider studies and the town of Sanikiluaq. In addition, there is a music video from Arctic Records by SKQ, and a behind-the-scenes video on building an igloo and making an eider skin parka and an eider seal skin kayak.

A First Run spokesperson said the doc will be available on iTunes beginning March 18, with plans to license it to Netflix’s documentary platform as well.

“We are still waiting to hear if Netflix will acquire the film,” Michelle Berninger, publicity and marketing coordinator at First Run, said in an email.

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