DVD Review of Winged Migration

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 9/30/05


  Who amongst us has not dreamt of flying under our own power? Despite a century of airplanes there is still nothing akin to winging off into the blue, crannying through small openings in trees, scaling sheer cliff faces. Never before has the idea of real bird-like flight been so perfectly expressed on film as it has in director Jacques Perrin’s masterful documentary film Winged Migration. Naysayers have decried the film is not a documentary because many of the birds were raised from birth, then trained to obey humans, bonded to them for they were the 1st things the birds saw after birth, called imprinting), so they’re not ‘really’ wild animals. Another objection is that the film, on several occasions, intersperses computer graphics with the ‘authentic’ documentary sequences.

  These objections are bushwah- this film is 1 of the most unique & exhilarating pieces of film- documentary or not- ever made. It goes & we see them interact in ways never not just seen before, but not really imagined. Yet, despite how informative it is the film is really about how birds live, in an interior sense. Most people watching this film will have ideas that birds migrate, are sensitive to earth’s electromagnetic fields, & acutely aware of the seemingly most trivial landmarks, but it’s when the film focuses in on a species or flock that we realize that all the birds are individual. Unlike the Alfred Hitchcock film, The Birds, these creatures are not mindless automata. Because they are not as sophisticated as humans does not mean they do not possess a high degree of sophistication, & 1 might even argue bird culture. Mating dances, flight patterns, hunting routines, are all delineated in detail, & we see the travails & triumphs of groups, even as some individuals fall prey to death in its myriad forms- human hunters, industrial waste, other birds, & in a particularly chilling scene a bird with a broken wing who is pursued on a beach by a horde of voracious sand crabs.

  Of course, being a documentary there is not a real plot, we just follow the different flocks through the course of a year. What intrigues is how the footage got so close to the birds? Some was taken while flying in ultra-light aircrafts, the noise of which the birds were made accustomed to while still in their eggs. Other footage was culled from hot air balloons & some from ground vehicles. Regardless of its provenance the visuals dazzle far more than any cyberworld can. Take your faraway worlds & galactic rides- give me this earth, this view, this way! Thankfully, there is very little narration- just enough to inform of a plight, but not enough to drone on irrelevantly.

  Most films, even the greatest, do not haunt the mind with possibility like this film. It is simultaneously an expression of the latest in human technology & the oldest in human imagination melded seamlessly together. In a sense the book is a filmic descendant of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, yet harder, more real. Even without watching the making of documentary on the DVD a viewer knows that this film most have been immensely difficult to coordinate- from the birth of the birds, to filming, & finally to editing the film into something like a story- requiring the elevation of some birds into ‘characters’, as well as some providence. The crew captures such events as an avalanche, as well as running into a battleship mid-ocean. The birds using its prow as a resting place is an oddly affecting scene- perhaps because the birds are shown as something familiar made alien & new, only to see them make ‘1st contact’ with humanity (or an edifice of it).

  The film took over 3 years to film- from summer of ’98 to summer of 2001. There are some haunting scenes of birds flying by Manhattan, with the World Trade Center still standing- a point of contention for Perrin on whether to innclude the shots. Ulrimately, he took the documentarian’s point of view. They were there when the birds were, so keep it. In a sense these films hearken most back to the –Quatsi films of Godfrey Reggio, save for their focus away from the human, yet they have a more natural poetry- even when they show that birds are not quite poetic themselves. We see birds who fail to take off in flight, others miscalculate their landings, & others clumsily negotiate their known world in ways bumblingly human. Like humans, their story can be both personal & humorous, epic & heroic.

  As for the DVD features, the nearly hour-long making of documentary is almost as fascinating as the film itself. Not only in discussion of the birds, the difficulties in raising & filming them, but artistic decisions, such as the Twin Towers footage & which flocks or species deserved ‘star’ billing, as well as how Perrin & co-directors Jacques Cluzaud & Michel Debats came to collaborate. The film commentary is never too didactic. If the film can be seen as an homage to aves, the commentary is an homage to filmmaking, focusing more on hows & whys rather than self-congratulations.

  Yet, it is the strength of the film that the manifest queries of how it was made do not intrude on the film while watching it. Nor is the film’s visual mastery drowned out by inapt scoring. All of the songs- from pop to classical- work. It does not preach, it does not plead, it simply is, & what it is is marvelous- what art should be.

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