Somewhere between the bong-hollow head space of Koyaanisqatsi and the factuality of PBS nature shows, there's Winged Migration, Jacques Perrin's documentary about birds on the wing. It's neither pure eye candy nor low-calorie education. Rather than treating his subjects merely as topical fodder for a wildlife doc, Perrin casts his birds as sympathetic characters, the heroes of an age-old and never-ending struggle for survival. They are, the director wants us to feel, just like us.
Shot over the course of four years on seven continents, the film captures dozens of species at differing points along their paths of migration, but they all seem caught up in the same very human endeavor. Common mallards fly in a V over central Europe, the lone male up front quacking in baritone, as if barking orders; Canadian geese, at a layover in Monument Valley, root around desperately in the red soil looking for grass to graze on; two grebes afloat in Oregon, each with maniacally red eyes and head plumage resembling a crew cut, compete with each other like GIs in a bar contest. We are so thoroughly encouraged to view the birds at a human scale, we almost don't notice that some of these vignettes are staged. It's hard to care. When a blue macaw in Brazil, captured to be sold at market, escapes from his tiny bamboo cage, you clap.
But even as your heartstrings are being hauled like dumbwaiter cables, you might still marvel at the technical end of things. The airborne footage--making up perhaps half of the film--is cinematographic daredevilry. Fourteen cinematographers and 17 pilots were deployed to get the lens within inches of birds in flight, using nearly everything from hot-air balloons and gliders to ultralights and remote-controlled model planes. Even these machinations, though, fail to detract from the film's humanizing agenda. Seen at such close range, the migrating birds seem less majestic than they do obsessed. Rarely do we see them gliding gracefully; more often than not, they are shown pounding their wings almost frantically, as if their very future depended on getting to their destination. Which, of course, it does.
Winged Migration shows little interest in why and how birds make these exhausting journeys. There are no more than a hundred words of narration. Instead, the film just aspires to be wordless and airy, and all but begs you to see the world bird-wise. So when you see the small white gannet caught in an eddy of air off a seaside cliff, just floating there, hovering, with its eyes closed, you think: You would do the same.