March of the Penguins, directed by Luc Jacquet

First published by Morning Star, Wednesday 7th December 2005

Age-old arguments

NICK LALAGUNA regrets that a brilliant documentary on penguins has been hijacked by the Christian right.

March of the Penguins, a new documentary set to go on general release in Britain this Friday, tells the story of 12 months in the life of the emperor penguins living in the Antarctic using the most sublime imagery and touchingly sensitive narration.

Every year, emperor penguins struggle against all the odds to take one of the most remarkable journeys in the natural world.

Thousands of penguins, at times on the brink of starvation, march in single file hundreds of miles through sub-zero blizzards and gale-force winds in order to mate and reproduce.

Each couple stays monogamous for that one year and lays a single egg. The females only remain long enough to lay the egg before starvation forces them in to the long march back looking for food, leaving the males behind to guard and hatch the eggs.

The male penguins cradle the eggs between their stomach and feet for two months, without eating. Even a few seconds on the frozen ground will destroy the egg and kill the precious treasure inside.

Once the female returns, with her reserves replenished, the parents swap roles.

The father, exhausted and starved, then takes his own long walk back to the plentiful feeding grounds in the seas many miles away.

This desperate tale of adversity has repeated itself every year over countless millennia and it is only now, through the astounding work of Luc Jacquet’s team, that it can be brought to the cinema-going public.

The gargantuan task of filming March of the Penguins cannot be overstated. A full film crew was flown to one of the most inhospitable places on the planet, where it stayed for 13 months.

Jacquet has done something very special in making March of the Penguins. He has taken the natural history documentary to new levels of mass audience appeal and epic cinematography.

This talented man, as well as writing the story on which the film is based, also co-wrote the screenplay and directed this beautiful and awe-inspiring tale of life on earth at its most dramatic.

The cinematography of Laurent Chalet and Jerome Maison is what really singles March of the Penguins out as one of the greatest natural history documentaries ever made.

Filmed in super 16mm, the continent of Antarctica itself takes on the mantle of a terrifying and beautiful counterpoint to the role played by the main stars.

Thanks to the skills of Chalet and Maison, this film becomes a dialogue between two players. Antarctica is at once the penguins’ primary predator, their home and their protection against the outside world.

Thankfully, the US film-going public has taken the penguins under their wing with audiences going to see this film in their millions.

Takings have already exceeded $70 million in the US alone and March of the Penguins has now become the second most popular French film after the Fifth Element and second most popular documentary after Fahrenheit 9/11 in US box office history.

Unfortunately, but not entirely unexpectedly, the huge success has brought the usual suspects out of the woodwork.

There has been a good deal of comment in the US media from certain outspoken conservative Christians, who are presenting March of the Penguins as further evidence of “intelligent design” and family values.

One website quotes: “To think that natural selection or even the penguins themselves could come up with the idea to migrate miles and miles multiple times each year without their partner or their offspring is a bit insulting to my intellect.”

Other critics suggest that this film “most passionately affirms traditional norms like monogamy, sacrifice and child-rearing.”

Jacquet responded to this sort of suggestion while speaking at the Times BFI London film festival.

“For me, there is no doubt about evolution. I am a scientist. The intelligent design theory is a step back to the thinking of 300 years ago.

“My film is not supposed to be interpreted in this way. Some scientists I know find the film interesting because it can be a good argument against intelligent design. People should not jump on these bandwagons.”

It would be naive to think that such a ground-breaking film, a film that perhaps is redefining a genre, a film that most certainly will educate millions to the plight of other creatures on this planet, wouldn’t be hijacked.

But that cannot distract from exactly what this film is.

For anyone even vaguely interested in the natural world, this is a must-see, preferably at the cinema if you are going to get the full spectacle of the breathtaking cinematography.

This is an epic story and needs to be given the time, space and industry recognition that it deserves.