Thursday, October 23, 2008

Winged Migration

I recently viewed a film called Winged Migration, a chronicling of migratory birds on a full cycle of their spring and fall migrations. It was one of those movies that I'm still thinking about weeks after I saw it, which means that it touched something in me very deeply. So, bear with me while I debrief :)

A handful of bird species were highlighted, including the arctic tern, the African white pelican, some storks and cranes, Canada geese, snow geese, barnacle geese and absolutely gorgeous red-breasted geese. The film includes very little narration, yet keeps the viewer engaged for about an hour and a half, just observing birds flying, interacting, breeding and generally surviving.

The most fixating element of the film is the quality of the footage. The camera appears to be strapped to the back of one of the geese, you feel so close to them. You can actually see their little faces as they fly. This is going to sound strange, but the geese, in particular, have *very* cute faces. And they look so earnest as they fly. They're taking their job very seriously :) They fly and form their giant V patterns with the utmost concentration.

So, throughout the film, there are events that made me smile, and some, of course, that made me cry. The director does a good job leaving the most upsetting things to the imagination and off camera, but still. In particular:

1. Scene in which a caged Canada goose hears fellow compatriots flying overhead and honks to them. He tries to fly away and join them, and when he can't, I swear his face actually falls. He watches them fly away with a look of utter dejection.

2. Baby bird of some kind nested in the grass, about to be run over by a tractor.

3. Red-breasted geese waddling through a toxic plant of some kind. One of them gets stuck in muck and is trapped as his friends get spooked and fly away, leaving him behind, panicked.

4. Baby penguin gets lured away from his parents and attacked by some nasty ass scavenger bird and...well, you know :(

5. White bird (tern?) has a broken wing and is abandoned by his flock on an African beach. Hideous looking crabs chase him down and he is powerless to fly away :(

The two that disturbed me the most were 4 and 5. Baby anythings these days make me think of my own son. Everything changes when you become a parent. Not that I ever would have enjoyed seeing a tiny chickling harmed, mind you. But now, the baby penguin and hook beaked predator in my mind become the cherubic Hank and some vandal trying to rip him from my protective arms. Someone whose very heart I would rip out with my bare hands should they attempt to hurt my baby. The penguin parents also tried to fight back, but Mr. Nasty Ass easily pushed them away. I swear it, on a scale of 1 to 10, this bird's face slappability factor was a 15.

And then that poor white shore bird :( It was pathetic watching him struggle, knowing exactly what those awful crabs wanted to do. It was then that I wondered to myself how the filmmakers restrained themselves in these situations. If I were anywhere in the vicinity, there's a zero percent chance of the following NOT happening: me, with a baseball bat, swinging at the crabs shouting "back off, you little f*ckers!" This of course ignores the fact that these particular crabs were anything but little. These were some gigantic crustaceans. They probably would have turned their attention from the bird to my leg, but never the mind.

I dwelt on these scenarios for days, weeks even. Despite the happy sequences of parent birds cavorting with their little ones, baby loons riding on their mothers backs, even a wild mackaw escaping from being caged and sold through use of his beak and sheer ingenuity, my mind wandered back to the vulnerability of these animals. All they are doing is minding their own business, not bothering their human friends in the least, trying to survive and raise their young. And all of these terrible things can befall them.

Well. Then I saw the "Making of" featurette on the DVD. I'm still mulling over my thoughts on what I learned there. As I mentioned, of course I wondered how they filmed the birds so closely. Turns out they did something called "imprinting." They raised the featured geese and company from the egg, bonding with them and getting them used to the noise of the equipment. In particular, that's how they got those unbelievable flying segments. The birds allowed them to fly right in their formation with an ultralite, a small flying machine with mounted camera. This information really tainted my view that these birds were filmed "in the wild." For instance, for the African footage, they actually flew the relevant birds to Senegal in an *airplane*. This film was just much more staged then I anticipated

In other respects, the "Making of" showed a fascinating side angle of the filmmakers interaction and relationship with the birds. When the pelicans fell ill with a parasite, they nursed them back to health. In one amusing scene, a handler is trying to get a food-boycotting pelican to accept a fish:

Pelican: snaps pouch closed tightly and looks away.

Handler: waves fish in front of mouth.

Pelican: "no, I really don't think so." Moves face in other direction.

The bottom line is, the birds were mostly domesticated, at least in my view. Very sweet the way they were taken care of. And I loved seeing their ability to interact with people. But it wasn't what I realized I was seeing when I viewed the film.

Here's the good news: many of those cry worth scenes mentioned above were totally staged. The baby bird was rescued from the tractor. As was the white tern from the invading crabs. And the red-breasted goose from the muck. In fact, that wasn't even mud. They planted him in some handmade concoction just to film that scene. Unfortunately, I think the baby penguin situation actually happened :(

So, I'm still dwelling on my feelings on all this. I understand that the ability to film animals in the wild is limited in scope and the footage may not be so gripping. So, maybe we need to accept some "staging" to make for a compelling film. I still definitely enjoyed the film. I got a closeup view of some beautiful birds and learned about some of their migration habits. Good stuff. Very, very thought-provoking.

1 comment:

  1. you capture the essence of the film very well; it stays with you. i will never forget jessica's reaction, having just watched the film in a theater (when she was 11 years old)..."that movie made me sad." she got it...just like you did. these creatures have incredibly difficult lives...the producers of the film took some liberties to show us those lives...we would otherwise have very little understanding or perspective.


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