Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Winged Migration


Dirs: Jacques Perrin, Jacques Cluzaud, Michel Debats

Another of the spellbinding nature documentaries out of France in recent years, this one follows birds on their transcontinential migrations. In the process, the movie weaves a subtle narrative about the immenisty of the earth and the footprint of humans upon it.

The camera work is breathtaking. Time and time again I found myself wondering "How did they get that shot?" The filmakers follow the birds over all imaginable landscapes, and the vistas are just as beautiful as the magnificent creatures. The scenes are at their best when following gliding birds close-up over tundra or canyons or skylines.

There were, though, some things about the movie that soured me. Many of the scenes are clearly staged (there are several camera angles at certain pivotal moments which must have taken hours to set up). Rather than let the magesty of the migration be the story, the directors create conflicts and triumphs artificially. The film acknowledges that it lies somewhere between documentary and fiction, but I felt manipluated and cheated. Why go through all of the technical challenges to capture the birds naturally just to set up contrived scenes for them?

Watching the featurette afterwards opened my eyes to what an undertaking this was. The crew of 500 spent four years filming the birds. They used ultra lightweight aircraft (essentially a chair with a big fan on the back) to fly in formation with the birds. But the most ambitious undertaking was in the birds themselves. The crew raised them from chicks using a technique called "imprinting" where they performed the mothering tasks and convinced the birds to follow them everywhere. That was how the birds allowed the crew to fly along side them.

While I would have preferred a more documentary style narrative, the movie's camera work is revolutionary. And such an involved project always makes me want to see it because, if for no other reason, so many people put so much love into it.