“Fathom” #EIFF21 Review

Year: 2021

Duration: 87 minutes

Director: Drew Xanthopoulos

By Caz Armstrong

If a whale were in the same room as you right now singing you their song, it would be louder than a roaring jet engine. Humpback whale songs have rhythm, patterns, and repetition, and people have been studying them for years. This documentary follows two women each studying a different aspect of whale song, and what it’s like for them working in the field.

Dr Michelle Fournet is trying to understand a particular ‘whup’ noise by playing it back to whales and observing their reactions. She’s joined by two other female scientists out in the wilderness of Alaska with 30 days to capture as much evidence as possible. Dr Ellen Garland is studying the transmission of different whale songs as they are passed from whale to whale across hundreds of miles of open sea.


This documentary is not about showing us pretty pictures of whales. In fact we hardly see any whales up close. This is about the scientific method and the people who work so hard to study the world around us.

That’s not to say that the film isn’t a visual feast. The Alaskan woodlands and vast open seas dotted by gracious whale tails dipping in and out of the water is a sight to behold. But the film is really about people. These women are all in difficult situations and very far from home. They not only need to capture the best data possible but they also need to look after themselves and each other.

A brief mention of Dr Garland’s mother being unable to pursue her desire of becoming an oceanographer because of her gender puts these women in a new light. Just one generation ago these women wouldn’t have been able to do this at all.

While we are not shown the all-male alternative, we get the impression that these women have a particularly supportive and collaborative environment. One notable scene showed the group in Alaska cutting each other’s hair, washing their clothes together and showing each other loving care despite the looming deadlines and the enormous task at hand. Mistakes are admitted quickly, forgiven graciously and treated as a problem for the group to solve together rather than assigning individual blame.


This documentary doesn’t have a particularly exciting narrative with twists and surprises. But there is enough suspense to hold our interest throughout. Moreover it’s about the importance of scientific study, and shows us what that can look like. The science is not a stream of constant discoveries and intimate whale encounters, it’s hard work and sacrifice. It also shows us how these women cope with difficult work out in the field, away from their loved ones.

During a discussion about motherhood and childcare one researcher notes that there are not many good examples of working mothers in their field, to which Dr Fournet replies “We don’t need any examples”. What significant a message to all future women scientists and researchers. Yes, it’s nice to have the way paved and to know how it can be done. But somebody has to go first and that may as well be you.

This film shows a particular aspect of scientific study through the lens of female scientists. It also asks us to consider culture, communication and community amongst both humans and animals.


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