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Wednesday, April 9, 2003

TRACKING BIRDS

A flight home



Le Peuple Migrateur

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Japanese title: Wataridori
Director: Jacques Perrin
Running time: 98 minutes
Language: Mostly wordless; some French
Currently showing


11' 09" 01

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Running time: 134 minutes
Language: Many languages
Currently showing

What would it be like to be a bird? Cinema is at its best when it answers simple questions like this and Jacques Perrin's avian documentary, "Le Peuple Migrateur (Wataridori)," immerses the viewer in a world beyond imagination. In 1996's "Microcosmos," Perrin employed magical cinematography, threading us through blades of grass to give us a startlingly closeup look at insect life. He achieves a similarly remarkable intimacy with birds in "Wataridori," following winged creatures of every kind on their migrations across the globe.

News photo
A flock of birds fly past the Eiffel Tower in "Le Peuple Migrateur"

Perrin's camera captures moments that will leave you wondering if you're watching digitally rendered sequences. You are not. How, you'll wonder, do the filmmakers follow a flock of ducks as they run along the ground flapping their wings, and then ascend into the sky, with the camera right there alongside, flying in formation? Or how do the filmmakers place themselves to capture some snow-flecked geese fleeing an icy shelf in Greenland seconds before a massive landslide comes roaring down the mountainside?

Patience, no doubt. That and a few tricks -- things like using a camera mounted on a propeller-driven cart with a hang-glider on top, or using a select group of specially bred birds that are acclimated to the close presence of humans. That said, there are a few moments that seem staged, like the way the camera just happens to capture a parrot breaking free from a trapper's cage in the heart of the Amazon.

Still, a little trickery can be excused when the results are as stunning as they are here. "Le Peuple Migrateur" spends most of its time tracking birds nearing the end of long migrations in locations devoid of any human presence at both ends of the globe. What does a crested Ibis do in Siberia? Or a penguin in Antarctica? Or what happens to a bird downed with a broken wing in the Sahara?

The film is full of surprises. The biggest one comes in the contrast between birds' group interaction on the ground, squabbling and chaotic, and in the air, where the flocks swirl and soar with uncanny precision and symmetry.

There are things about the film that grate though, such as a tendency toward postcard-perfect shots (geese flying past the Eiffel Tower, the World Trade Center and the Great Wall of China) and an overly solemn New Age soundtrack. The film's editorializing is a bit clumsy as well, taking easy -- albeit accurate -- swipes at the way farming, industry and urbanization have affected avian life. This being a French film, of course, when we get the obligatory scene of hunters blasting the birds out of the sky, it's set in the United States.

A small dig, perhaps, but not surprising coming from Perrin, who first came to fame as an actor in 1969, in Costa Gavras' "Z," the classic agit-prop political thriller about the U.S.-backed military coup in Greece. Perrin may be best known these days for his environmentalist documentaries and for producing the Nepalese trek film "Caravan," but his political tendencies remain just as strong. It's no surprise then to find Perrin listed as the line producer for "11' 09" 01," an anthology of short films made in response to the Sept. 11 attack on New York City.

"11' 09" 01" features 11 directors from across the globe bringing different perspectives to the tragedy, with the simple constraint that each film should be 11 minutes, nine seconds and one frame in length. Released in 2002 and shown on TV and at special event screenings, "11' 09" 01" originally aired in Japan last September on TBS, on the first anniversary of Sept. 11. The continuing timeliness of the issue, as well as the many high-profile directors involved -- including Samira Makhmalbaf, Shohei Imamura, Sean Penn, Ken Loach and Mira Nair -- has led to a cinema release.

While the effort is a noble one -- bringing an international, multifaceted perspective to counter the monolithic view offered by the ubiquitous, U.S.-controlled media -- the results are maddeningly uneven, ranging from the incisive and the poignant to the irrelevant and insultingly oblivious.

French director Claude LeLouch and Japan's Imamura both fall into the latter category. LeLouch offers up the slightest of slight melodramas, in which the Twin Towers' collapse is just the thing needed to resolve a lover's quarrel. (Nothing like the deaths of 3,000 people to put things like "he never takes out the garbage" into perspective.)

Imamura, meanwhile, seems to have nothing to say whatsoever: He sets his tale after another cataclysm, World War II, and follows a Japanese soldier who's been so traumatized by the war that he thinks he's become a snake. As he slithers on the ground and hisses, this becomes inadvertently silly, and any connection to the matter at hand, other than a generic antiwar stance, remains oblique.

Amos Gitai of Israel ("Kippur"), Danis Tanovic of Bosnia ("No Man's Land") and Youssef Chahine of Egypt all make essentially the same point: that the United States has no monopoly on pity and suffering. This is not a message that many people want to hear, but it accurately reflects the feelings of those who're suffered continuing political violence -- be it the Srebrenica massacre, or the numerous revenge killings in the Middle East. The strongest argument comes from Ken Loach, who throws down the gauntlet: Where was America's outrage and empathy on another Sept. 11 (in 1973) when the elected government of Chile was overthrown in a U.S.-sponsored military coup, which resulted in a wave of fascist terrorism that involved the death, torture and disappearance of thousands of civilians?

Mira Nair offers a sharp piece on an actual victim of Sept. 11: a Pakistani-American named Mohamed Salman who's quickly denounced as an accessory of al-Qaeda (due to his race) before it's revealed that he actually died helping others at Ground Zero. Burkina Faso's Idrissa Ouedraogo finds a bit of humor in the ironies of the global village, with a group of young boys who think they've spotted Osama bin Laden and plan to capture him for the reward money.

It's left to Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ("Amores Perros") to convey the unspeakable horror of the tragedy itself. He starts with the screen in pitch black for a long, long time, over which the soundtrack starts with your usual morning radio chatter. As newscasts interrupt the broadcasts, he builds a cacophony of overlapping, panicky reports and chanted prayers, with ever-so brief glimpses of plummeting bodies, before climaxing in a burst of white light and one final plea, in a piece of Arabic text.

It can be dangerous to respond to an atrocity by aestheticizing it and some critics have condemned Inarritu for seemingly valuing art over life. I wonder what they'd say about Picasso's " Guernica"; for this critic, Inarritu's film worked as an intensely moving requiem, restrained and precise, and the one segment here that is undeniably a must-see.



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