Winged Migration (Le Peuple Migrateur)

Winged Migration is 85 minutes of birds flying. Just birds flying. It’s no Hitchcock. That’s an invitation, not a warning, about this unusual and quite thrilling documentary by French filmmaker Jacques Perrin.

Perrin’s four-decade career in movies and television – as an actor as well as producer – is varied and eclectic. He has appeared in more than 100 movies; in the States he’s probably best known for work in Z, Cinema Paradiso and The Young Girls of Roquefort. He produced Academy Award winners Z and Black and White in Color, among other films. He also made 1996’s fascinating Microcosmos, an intense inside look at the insect world and a movie that presages work such as Winged Migration.

Winged Migration, subtitled "the amazing odyssey of travelling birds," represents a huge achievement, and it’s something Perrin didn’t accomplish alone. In a four-year effort that spanned space as well as time, Perrin employed more than a dozen cinematographers to get up close and personal with the thousands of subjects of his film. Perrin, and co-directors Jacques Cluzaud and Michel Debats, went to great lengths to capture the four migratory routes, both spring and fall, of the major bird groups: North American birds, which fly south toward Central and South America; European or Asian birds, which head toward Africa; Asian birds, which fly toward India around the Himalayas; and Southeast Asian birds, which may travel as far as Australia.

The filmmakers didn’t just photograph the birds from planes, though. They used specialized gliders, helicopters, balloons and even developed an "ultra light motorized craft," a vehicle that utilizes a camera with a 360-degree field of vision. Viewers get a proverbial bird’s eye view. The fancy technology works, and it makes for vistas that simply are out of this world. And that’s why Winged Migration is the success it is. Watching these gorgeous, graceful birds as they make their way across the world is not only mesmerizing and meditative, it actually makes humans feel what it might be like to fly.

The film isn’t like anything on PBS or Animal Planet. Happily, Perrin veers away from "educational" constraints, offering only slight, spare narration. It’s no detraction from the film that at the end of the visual extravaganza it provides, nature novices won’t necessarily know the difference between various types of geese, or a crane or a tern. (Most folks probably will recognize penguins and a feisty parrot, though.)

Likewise, it’s not a problem that bird fanatics may not remember all of the numerous specimens that inhabit the screen in many amazing international settings — despite the fact that the images are stunningly beautiful throughout the entire film. New Age music that’s neither cloying nor boring accompanies the one-of-a kind pictures in the documentary, which deservedly earned an Academy Award nomination.

Winged Migration is film unlike anything most people have seen. It’s not just a movie-going experience. It’s a spiritual experience.

– Leslie Katz