Love Across The Ice Desert

A Review of MARCH OF THE PENGUINS (2005)
Original Title: La Marche De L'Empereur (French)
Director: Luc Jacquet

Think ‘penguin’ and the first thing that comes to mind is a flightless bird with flippers instead of wings, which looks rather like a plump little man in a tuxedo, and waddles clumsily across an icy plain. Right?

In that case, March Of The Penguins is an eye-opener for those who think they know all there is to know about these endearing flightless birds. It is also a wonderful film for animal and bird lovers and if it doesn’t lead one to respect these creatures, nothing else can.

Luc Jacquet’s documentary film on the life of Emperor penguins in the Antarctic is a visual treat in more ways than one. While wildlife documentaries always have the potential to fascinate, given the riot of colour, flora and fauna that the viewers would be in for, March Of The Penguins pulls it off like no other. For one thing, the odds are stacked against the film right from the beginning: the location is the coldest, driest continent on earth, Antarctica, where in the harshest weather, the temperature dips to a deadly –89 degrees Celsius (-121 degrees Farenheit.) The maximum temperature is 0 degrees Celsius! It’s a daunting challenge for any filmmaker to set up cameras in a place so unforgiving AND manage to create a beautiful film. But these people did it, and March is a glorious testimony to both the merciless beauty of Antarctica and to the unflagging human spirit - and, of course, to the world’s largest species of penguins and their amazing saga of courage and survival.

At the very beginning, we are treated to a series of frames that show nothing but ice floes that seem to stretch endlessly across the Antarctic. The only colours on screen are white and blue, and gradually we get to see speckles of black – the male Emperor penguins, their bellies filled with months’ worth of food, making their way to the breeding grounds that are an astounding 70 miles away.

To see the penguins painstakingly walking such a long distance on their clumsy feet in an orderly line, something beyond human capabilities, is humbling, especially considering that with all the technology at our disposal, many humans have died trying to conquer the South Pole. It is with awe that we watch them actually make it all the way, carefully and clumsily, to greet their compatriots with what seem like hearty honks of companionship. The camera does not mince details of the snowstorms and blizzards that are part of an Emperor penguin’s daily life, especially in the scenes where a few penguins that are slower than the others, have to make their way alone across the ice. It’s eerily reminiscent of lonely old men plodding down a deserted road, his feet ready to give way any time.

The courtship of the penguins is, in which they find their mates through singing in true cinematic style, is both comical and sweet. Since males are fewer than females, the law of Nature is sometimes reversed when the usually aggressive males are fought over by a few females. The males don’t seem to mind, and the narrator even makes a mention of how similar they are to human males. It is set to romantic music, which is beautiful but might seem cheesy; fortunately, however, the visuals are so arresting that the music does not overpower them. Several frames linger on penguin couples huddling together, resting after their long journey, or simply enjoying each other’s company. They are almost like humans in a bittersweet love affair, knowing they have to part soon, and the yellows and oranges on their bodies and beaks seem to be the only splashes of colour in the vast icy realm.

After three months of starvation, the female penguins lay their eggs, entrust their care to the fathers, and then head back to sea to break their fast, leaving the fathers to guard the eggs for a few months more. This is the time for the harshest weather ever to hit the continent, which literally epitomises the phrase “Hell Freezes Over.” It is incredible to see these penguins huddled in a circle, barely four feet high, holding their own against the harshest storms, taking turns to huddle in the centre so that each gets a term to be warm. All their aggression during the mating disappears and they work as a team to keep themselves and their eggs warm.

The appearance of the newborn penguin chicks - which look absolutely adorable and sing like nightingales - is almost like heralding spring. But no - they are born right in the midst of the icy storms. With their fathers starving and their mothers at sea, it is a miracle that most actually manage to stay alive. The fathers, though, manage to keep their chicks alive for the time being by feeding them special body secretions through their beaks; it’s a marvel their little bodies manage to manufacture anything in these times of starvation. Nature, the entrepreneur non-pareil, is at her best yet again.

The return of the mothers (with bellies full!) is met with much relief by the fathers - or so we’d like to think! It was amusing the way they looked up as if to say “Just WHERE have you been all this while?” After a brief period of togetherness, once the chicks have recognized their mothers, the fathers return to sea to eat after almost four months. Thereafter, the parents take turns going to and from the sea to take turns feeding their chicks. Finally, for the last time, the mothers leave them to fend for themselves once they are old enough. It was heartbreaking to see a few chicks, unable to accept this new turn in their lives, trying to catch up with their mothers! However, they eventually resign themselves to their fate, and continue to grow bigger. Eventually, they take to the water as if they were born in it, and it is amazing to see these rotund birds who look like walking eggs on land, travelling in the water like the sleekest of torpedoes. And the cycle of life continues to repeat itself.

Since penguins do not have access to technology like we do, they are completely at the mercy of Nature. The law of survival of the fittest cannot find a better place to be respected than on Antarctica. So it is only natural that these birds suffer several losses – the loss of eggs that have been exposed to the cold too soon after being laid; the winter causing more ice to develop on the seashore, forcing the returning mothers to travel longer distances and increasing their possibility of death; and the loss of mothers at sea, when they are eaten up by predators. More eggs are lost during the winter storms, which also claim some of the fathers; as are the newborn chicks whose father’s warmth could not save them; and finally, the chicks who are forced to die because their mothers have not returned in time and their fathers are forced to abandon them to feed themselves. It is a grim reminder of the fickleness of life, especially in Antarctica, but also of how tough these creatures are to survive in such conditions and still not be classified as endangered.

The mating habits of the penguins and their (temporarily) monogamous lifestyle makes it very tempting to compare them to humans. It is but natural that their way of dealing with their losses, not to mention the fact that they are flightless and clumsy on land and therefore, technically helpless, would affect us as a thinking and emotional species, but it would be wise to remember that they have been doing this for thousands of years. They may have smaller brains but are far ahead of us in terms of evolution, so it would not be prudent to take their society as something to model our own upon. Unfortunately, people have made their own socio-political interpretations of the film. Some consider the film as ideal propaganda material for the cause of “conservative family values”, with the father, mother and child being together, since this has been portrayed in the film along with several other behavioural patterns of penguins that are similar to those of humans. The filmmaker, Luc Jacquet, has expressed his outrage against these anthropomorphic comparisons and connotations, as have others.

Personally, I found it romantic and cute (the birds themselves are adorable), but not necessarily something that we humans need to model our lives upon. Frankly, if I were living in a place where the average temperature is –30 degrees Celsius, I’d be more worried about feeding myself rather than bringing up a family! It’s this mentality of people to compare humans and animals and try to bridge the gap that eventually creates ecological troubles. It would be wise to remember that all animals are millennia ahead of us, and we’re still infants as far as evolutionary history is concerned, and that the so-called “gap” is actually the size of Gondwanaland. It would be better to admire and respect them and look for ways to conserve them without disrupting the ecosystem, rather than to conjure up religious and social ideals in connection to them.

This is one of more than just an unforgettable documentary films, not only for its content but also for showcasing, in lush imagery, a place where there is practically nothing. The vast expanse of ice and snow is breathtaking and the sunsets and sunrises are spectacular, more so when the ice reflects the light and scatters it into myriad shades of pink, yellow and orange. One particularly outstanding scene is one where the egg-incubating male penguins are huddled into groups and the Southern lights - aurora australis - dance above, making it appear like a penguin discotheque. (This film was also thought to be the basis for the hugely successful Happy Feet, an animated film about an outcast Emperor penguin who becomes the hero of his tribe.) The courage it must have taken for the cameramen and everyone else involved on-location, to make the film while braving the snow and blizzards, is indeed admirable.

A treat for nature lovers and film buffs alike, March Of The Penguins is a must-watch and undoubtedly deserved its Oscar win for Best Documentary.

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