On the East coast of Scotland, the traditional method of Wild Atlantic Salmon fishing used to be an essential part of the economy. Latterly, the practice has fallen out of favour and fashion, but the Pullars are one of the last families still clinging to the old ways. The documentary Of Fish and Foe follows their struggle with the elements, as well as those of the eco-activists who oppose their actions. The film ranges from their brushes with the law and with hunt saboteurs and showcases their frustrations over being prevented from shooting predatory seals, as well as with EU regulations and local council edicts.
It’s clear from the offset that what you bring to Of Fish and Foe will definitely colour your enjoyment and feelings about the subject matter. The topic of fishermen versus activists will be polarising to many, and the documentary has no issues in plunging straight in at the deep end. From early scenes of the fishermen killing seabirds tangled up in the nets, and bashing salmon over the head with a cudgel, it’s clear that their way of life will be shocking to some. At the same time, the film gives much time early on to the sea sheriffs and hunt saboteurs; letting them put across their arguments and showing them cutting nets and getting in the way of the fishermen. It tries to remain even-handed, but in the end the frank openness of the fishermen does become grudgingly endearing. On the other hand, the activists become progressively less willing to be involved in the documentary as it continues. Tellingly, the final time they are shown onscreen all they will say is “no comment”.
It’s a curious beast, never taking the time to formally introduce most of the personalities at play. Instead, we can only judge everyone involved directly on their actions and words. Heathcote and Bachelier have pulled together a fascinating glimpse into a dying way of life, a schism where the old meets the new, which is nowhere better illustrated than by the repeated presence of a modern forklift truck being used to carry nets and boats to the water. It’s a strange discordant image and one that sits at odds with the conception of rural fishermen and the old ways.
One issue with the film is that without any form of narration, and with only a few moments of onscreen text to fill in some gaps, it’s occasionally confusing to work out when time has passed. It’s also difficult to judge when the narrative is about to head in a new direction. One can only imagine how much footage was sifted through to make up this documentary, but there are many lengthy repeated scenes, particularly near the start. While that might have been to accentuate the grind of the daily work and struggle, it baffles when later on events are skimmed over. That said, it’s a quaint and sombre reflection on the passing of the old ways.