October 2, 2003

Winged Migration

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I have seen birds. I have seen them fly, eat, sing, and roost. I have seen them migrate, flying in formations hundreds of feet above me. But I have never seen birds quite like this. Winged Migration is something quite remarkable. While the idea of a film entirely about the migration of birds may cause some eye rolling among skeptics, it takes only a matter of minutes for this film to replace cynicism with wonder. The film is simple enough: it creates a record of the migrations of dozens of species, from the south to the north and back again. Aside from the images of birds themselves, the soundtrack is limited to a sparse commentary mixed with both music and ambient sound.

The camerawork, however, is far from simple. Beautiful would not do justice in describing it. The movie contains some of most fascinating images ever captured on film, cinematography that defies the mind and the laws of gravity. The camera literally moves parallel to birds in flight. It hovers above them as they soar over vast continents and oceans, or sail just inches above their own reflections on a lake. It waits in anticipation as birds dive right at it and whir by. At one point the camera comes so close to a goose in flight that we see the ribs flexing in its back.

We glide with the birds, streaking through the sky in incredibly long tracking shots. We follow them as they fly, cast against artic tundra, woodland forests, southwestern mesas, and African savannah. At points, the long, extended shots achieve a certain level of transcendence, becoming almost surreal and dreamlike in their beauty, causing us to forget that we are merely watching the migration of birds. The film becomes a tone poem, musing on the limitless possibilities embodied in the flight of a bird. At points the natural images are juxtaposed with creations of the human world. We see birds gliding past the lights of a city, over industrial plants, tractors, and trucks. The camera achieves a degree of tragedy when it watches birds migrate north from within a goose pen, or falls with birds shot down by hunters. How the filmmakers managed to capture such startling shots is mind boggling. Some of the shots are so intimate that it seems likely the birds were trained in the presence of the film crew. Otherwise, such close-ups and in-flight shots would seem impossible.

However, cinematography alone can seldom bring a film to greatness. Winged Migration is not devoid of plot, but it lacks continuity on the whole, having no real fabric that holds it all together as one. It is hard to really become familiar with any one type of bird, since the film is constantly shifting between images. It would be incorrect to fully categorize Winged Migration as a documentary. In truth it teaches us little about the birds it so gracefully follows. The commentary is minimal, and would have been better off left out, since it continually states the obvious (“Migration is a matter of life and death”) instead of being insightful about the process of migration.

Still, the strength of the film rests in what it shows us. By the grace of technology, it manages to take us to a place above the earth we could only imagine otherwise.

Archived article by Zach Jones