In the tradition of the also nearly wordless Atlantis (1991) and Microcosmos (1996), Winged Migration is another invaluable French nature documentary that "documents" with such extraordinary wonder and power that educational voiceover narration is superfluous: It’s enough simply to see.
Director Jacques Perrin and his crew of pilots and cinematographers spent four years traversing the globe, capturing unprecedented images of migratory birds in flight and on land. Shooting from hot-air balloons and ultralight aircraft, the filmmakers insinuate the camera’s eye so intimately into the midst of airborne flights of birds that one can almost count the hairlike barbs on the feathers. Other times, one is staggered by the sheer number of birds captured in a single shot, sweeping across the sky like a curtain being drawn or covering an island to the horizon and the edges of the screen.
Some of the images are simultaneously comical and amazing: rockhopper penguins energetically bouncing out of the surf, springing like miniature kangaroos over the rocky shore; swimming Clark’s grebes abruptly running on tiptoe across the water’s surface in synchronized pairs. Others are hard to watch: a tern with a broken wing struggling to evade an aggressive crab; a red-breasted duck mired in sludge near an industrial plant.
It diminishes the film somewhat to learn that Perrin says that some of the scenes, including the one with the duck at the industrial plant, were staged (though it’s nice to hear that the bird was rescued), and that while the scene with the tern wasn’t staged, the crew did fake the image of the crabs apparently swarming over the fallen bird, first rescuing the tern and then throwing the crabs a fish.
Even more bizarrely, Perrin claims that the scene of ducks apparently being shot down by hunters is also misleading: He says the birds aren’t being fired upon at all, but are merely drop-diving to the lakes below in sport, and that the sound of a hunter’s gun was added to the soundtrack to make it dramatic. (This claim is so odd, and the supposedly natural behavior looks so mordant, that one might reasonably wonder whether Perrin is telling the truth, or whether this story might have been invented after the fact to appease extremist animal-rights sensibilities offended by the depiction of real animal suffering onscreen.)
More understandable is the revelation that some of the birds were exposed from the egg to the sounds and sight of people and film crews, and were thus easier to film, being unafraid of the filmmakers. If conditioning the birds to be accustomed to film crews was instrumental to getting some of this film’s spectacular footage, so be it. Winged Migration is a remarkable achievement that never goes very long without showing something you’ve never seen before.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.