You could be forgiven if see the previews of Jacques Perrins WINGED MIGRATION and conclude that this is just another well-produced documentary about our fine feathered friends.
Youd be so wrong.
This is to the nature documentary, even the finest ones that have found a home on PBS, what home movies are to CITIZEN KANE. Perrin, who brought us the equally remarkable MICROCOSMOS a few years back, has moved from insects to birds and created a film that is an expert blend of drama, humor, and poetry.
Using a spare narration and captions that serve only to set context, such as the fact that the arctic tern flies from pole to pole on its annual migration, Perrin immerses us in the aetherial realm of the feathered as no film has done before. Over three years, forty countries, and using 450 people divided into five separate film crews, he followed the annual migrations of birds for whom exhausting and dangerous thousand-mile migrations are the only route to survival. A variety of techniques, including hot air balloons and gliders give the stunning photography a startling intimacy, with birds on the wing mere inches from the camera, sometimes looking straight at it with an all too human mix of surprise and camaraderie. The long shots are no less beautiful, each one topping the next for inventiveness, artistry, and sheer scope. There are overhead shots of pure white whooping swans gliding over a lushly green river that reflects the clouds above, the impromptu and delicate ballet of cranes taking a break from their thousand-mile journey, and a formation of pelicans in close-up gliding nonchalantly above clouds that are roiling with lightning.
But Perrin has not limited himself to producing an art piece. The intimacy of the camera also allows us to see these creatures as individuals, driven and even emotional, if youll forgive the anthropomorphism (note that the original French title translates to THE MIGRATING PEOPLE). There is no denying that what the geese who encounter a water hole in the arid American Southwest are experiencing is the avian version of pure joy. Even their honking takes on a distinct lilt, a chortle, even. Though the cast is in the millions, he and editor Marie-Josephe Yoyotte have sculpted the footage into narrative arcs, both dramatic and slapstick and imbues them all with a very real sense of individuality as we hear the beat of their wings, see the strain they endure of having been airborne for several days straight, or mourn the loss of a chick with them. Hence, when these creatures run headlong into humankinds encroachment, the anguish is all the more palpable. Though brief, these moments make their point with aching poignancy. When a duck that has flown across half the hemisphere falls to a hunters bullet, the ducks date with a dinner table is not sport, its murder.
The film makes a point of saying at the outset that no special effects were used in filming, but when you have such things as grebes doing the seemingly impossible feat of sprinting across water, or a greater sage grouse inflating his elastic wattles to impossible proportions that defy logic, reason, or even good taste, it is easy to see why none are necessary. To see this film is to be transported to a place of pure air and spirit.