Winged Migration 2001, Directed by Jacques Perrin (with Jacques Cluzaud and Michel Debats)
It’s trite to refer to nature films or documentaries in terms of “breathtaking cinematography” or “gorgeous locations.” But Winged Migration, from the team of filmmakers responsible for the acclaimed Microcosmos, happens to be breathtaking and gorgeous. More to the point, it is a stunning and surprising film, and not so much because of its cinematic aesthetic, but because the filmmakers actually pull it off. Six camera crews, visiting 300 locations around the globe, follow several groups of migratory birds to their destinations and back. No trick photography or computer generated images were used in the coverage of these birds, which are tracked in an up-close-and-personal style—often within inches—while they are in flight.
Along with the numerous dangers involved in filming creatures in arctic regions, the Sahara Desert, or the jungles of India, the chief obstacle for the crews was getting sophisticated cameras—and camera operators—in the air. Considering also that winged creatures tend not to be ready for their close-ups, the first half hour of the film never fully pulls viewers away from the central question: How did they do that? In fact, the opening sequence is a quick series of impossible angles and perspectives on a little bird taking food to its nest, and yet, there we are. Not long afterward we are in the air, just under the wing of one goose in a flock that dutifully heads for the horizon. The only sound, one that few humans are accustomed to, is the steady whiffing of the flock’s tireless wings. Soon enough, as other migratory birds (sand hill cranes, black-and-white storks, Canada Geese, arctic terns) make their impressive appearances, curiosity about the making of the film gives way to complete immersion into this avian realm.
There is very little narrative, which is accompanied by a subtitle that names each bird, its destination, and the number of miles involved. It is somewhat disconcerting to witness a huge white pelican or sand hill crane struggle to get airborne, and then learn that they have anywhere from 6,000 to 12,000 miles to go. Indeed, it’s that tension that makes the film’s implied “narrative” so captivating; through pure imagery, the filmmakers convey the drama that is inherent in the lives of wild creatures, especially those that leave a cozy nest and head for the icy cliffs of the Labrador Sea. Consequently, it’s impossible not to pull for our feathered friends.
Most of them fare well, such as the flock of geese that sets down briefly in the red sand of Monument Valley. The geese huddle just under a dune as a herd of mustangs thunders past, seem mildly impressed by the spectacle, and then they get back to the day’s business. Another flock of geese, already a thousand miles into their journey, finds refuge on a ship at sea. Some of the larger, more exotic birds, having reached terra firma, strut across dunes and in pools like dandies of the 18th-century French Court.
Occasionally, however, the nasty, short, and brutish aspects of nature arise. One little tern with an injured wing limps along the beach as a battalion of very large crabs patiently surrounds it; another gets trapped in the toxic sludge of a run-down Eastern European factory. Most of the players in this story, however, just fly their hearts out, care for their young, and visit some of the most amazing natural locations on the planet. If it sounds as though these creatures are being anthropomorphized, that’s an effect of the film, which is far closer in style to a Disney wildlife adventure than a National Geographic documentary. It’s just technically and cinematically far beyond both.
There is a poetic, lyrical quality throughout, perhaps partly due to director Jacques Perrin’s gentle accent and his understated, sparse narration. Moreover, the crews tend to shoot scenes with an eye for composition, as though the astonishing technical feats were not sufficiently awe-inspiring. Some shots, especially along the French countryside and in moonlight, seem lifted from 19th-century paintings. An evening shot of geese flying over a patchwork of farmland actually hints at the famous M. C. Escher drawing. The score is a fruity and sentimental new-age affair; once the white pelicans glide out to sea, one half expects Enya to break into song (Nick Cave, no less, does a number). That’s a minor distraction from this major cinematic diversion, and in a way it merely underscores the fact that these Frenchmen have wildly romanticized the natural phenomenon of winged migration. Film fans and bird lovers will certainly forgive them.