Parrots and Penguins

It’s been quite a year for documentary film making. While long tail providers such as Netflix have made it easier for interested parties to get hold of minority-interest films on DVD, a number of documentaries have made box office waves. In Grand Rapids the rejuvenation of Wealthy Theatre has provided an additional venue for documentary screenings. Six of the nineteen films we’ve seen in the cinema so far this year have been documentaries.

The latest of those is the box office favourite, March of the Penguins. Reminiscent of Winged Migration in its surprising scope and magificent visuals, the film is enjoying a second consecutive week in the US box office top 10, and if the response of the audience around us is anything to go by, could be set for a lengthy run. It’s an engaging tale, not entirely ignoring but certainly not lingering on the more grizzly aspects of penguin life, but like all too many wildlife documentaries falls heavily into the trap of anthropomorphism.

The seemingly “human” penguin traits portrayed help the audience begin to engage with the animals, but at times I felt robbed of any sense of their “otherness.” When talking of the way the father’s care for the unhatched eggs the narrator talks of “role reversal” which relies on a very particular understanding of parental roles and seemed to rest too heavily on the human comparison — can it really be role reversal to do what your species has done without change for thousands of years?

I found myself comparing this film with the other bird-focussed documentary we’ve seen of late: The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. The scale of the two films is quite different, and the birds they display are similarly distict, but I realised that Wild Parrots feels the more honest of the two films. Purportedly an exploration of the behaviour of wild parrots in San Francisco, it becomes an portrait of a man whose life work has been to nurture that parrot population. Certainly there is anthropomorphic behaviour, but that issue is tackled head on, and by bringing herself into the story, the filmmaker makes explicit the editorial process that has taken place.

No documentary can ever be objective, but they can establish trust by being upfront about the process they are part of. March of the Penguins invites us to marvel, while Wild Parrots shows us its gaps and invites us into its questions. Both are worthwhile, but one is certainly more helpful.

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