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Polar Express: The Mystical Journey of the Emperor Penguin

Beautiful icebergs. Pristine, dazzling white snow. Welcome to Antarctica. “I want to live in paradise,” we hear, as the geometric beauty of the polar landscape unfolds before us. Only later do we realize that this unspoiled setting is far from Eden. What at first appears so alluring is, in fact, bleak, inhospitable terrain. Sir Ernest Shackleton, the early 20th century explorer, described it as “the coldest, windiest, driest and darkest place on the planet.” But it is home to the emperor penguin.

The March of the Penguins (aka The Emperor’s Journey), from French director Luc Jacquet, is a moving, mystical journey into the world of the emperor penguin. An epic tale of courage and endurance, the film explores the harsh trials and extraordinary struggles of the species as it embarks on its annual pilgrimage to a distant mating place. In order to breed, this gentle, regal bird is cruelly required by nature to walk—a comical undulating shuffle—for miles to a remote corner of Antarctica, just to lay a single egg.

And so begins the march, or marches, because the migration is actually a constant to-and-fro between the stark, but solid, terrain of the colony and the nourishing waters of the ocean. Jacquet lyrically names the marches: the March of the Long Caravans, the Twilight Journey, the Journey of the Moon, the Journey of the Famished and the Journey of Separation.

Unspeakable cold, violent winds, hunger, blizzards and rapacious predators will hinder the survival of these creatures. Jacquet has captured the drama and occasional humour of this winter migration in visually arresting photography, and coupled it with a poetic and deeply contemplative voiceover. The film explores the fragility of life in the polar region and the sacrifices required in order to reproduce. But it is also a story of love, of delicate, affectionate mating dances that last for weeks: a yearly romantic rendez-vous in a forbidding environment.

“It’s more like a Greek tragedy or an opera than a scientific documentary,” Jacquet says by phone from Paris. “I wanted to tell a simple story and base it more on emotions than make a dry educational film. I had already been on five previous trips to Antarctica, and back in 1992 I was there for 14 months studying penguins. So I was familiar with their behavior and experienced the same cold and harsh environment. I wanted to be a spokesperson for the penguins and allow the viewers to feel for them and understand what they were going through.

“I wanted to break the traditional mold of doing a film with an impersonal voiceover,” he continues. “I wanted to simplify the narration so that the audience would tap into the emotions of the penguins. It was a very risky thing to do but it paid off.”

The penguins first appear as a hazy mirage in a white desert. Slowly a singular black form takes shape. Gradually more distant black forms come into view, sentinels in the arid landscape, reminiscent of Bedouins in David Lean’s Laurence of Arabia. When asked about this shot, Jacquet replies, “Yes, the first image is very confusing and I wanted to play on this confusion because that’s what it feels like being in Antarctica—you don’t quite understand what you’re seeing in the distance. Is it a person? They look like Touaregs, the nomadic tribe, which is effectively what the emperor penguins are.”

“I knew that I wanted to make a film that spoke in the language of cinema,” he adds. “I wanted to translate all the scientific knowledge that I had into a moving story.”

This is all the more remarkable given that Jacquet started out as a scientist and not a filmmaker, and his foray into the world of documentaries began a decade ago by answering a classified ad looking for a “fearless biologist.” His intrepid nature came in handy in the making of the film, which required the crew to set up camp in the Antarctic during the winter and remain stranded there for over a year, enduring extreme cold, 100 mph winds and months of complete darkness and isolation.

“We could not find an insurer,” Jacquet notes. “Nobody wanted to insure a shoot in Antarctica, where no plane, no ship arrives for several months. And nobody wanted to finance such a long shoot. We found investors very late in the production process and then had to go full speed to set up the expedition in time.”

Determination and enthusiasm for the adventure were matched by extensive preparation: The crew members all underwent rigorous tests (five hours of psychological tests and an interview with a psychologist) designed by the Polar Institute to assess how they would deal with the isolation. “I chose crew members who were multitalented, who knew how to perform multiple tasks and were competent enough to occupy different crew positions,” Jacquet explains. “We did some test shoots in high altitudes in France in order to replicate the environment of the South Pole. It was important for me to go to Antarctica with a crew that I already knew, with people that I wanted to work with.”

The endeavour resembled a military operation. The filmmakers departed with a detailed shot list and completed script, knowing they would be leaving the South Pole a year later without having seen even a single frame of dailies. Armed with customized Aaton cameras to function in –40° F temperatures, the team faced unforeseen dangers and hazards.

“We lost two members of the crew during a blizzard,” Jacquet recalls. “When those forceful 100 mph winds lift, all the snow starts swirling and before you know it you are completely lost and in a ‘white-out.’ Luckily they had radios and GPS, but it still took us seven hours to find them again, by which time they were suffering from severe windburn and frostbite.”

But there were also advantages to filming in a region never colonised by man: “Penguins are a very easy species to film,” notes Jacquet. “They are not afraid. They come up very close to the camera. So unlike other wildlife documentaries where you have to use very long lenses, here we could use all types of lenses. The scenes of the eggs hatching and baby penguins were shot at a distance of less than 10 meters [30 feet ].” This enabled the crew to capture graceful scenes of tender courtship, monogamy, task-sharing and close huddling, bringing out the remarkably human traits of these endearing creatures.

There were also great surprises along the way. “I’ve been to the South Pole five times, so I am used to that environment,” Jacquet notes. “But every time I go I am still shocked by something. This time was the immense colony of penguins that we encountered. Normally it’s around 200-300, and the year we filmed it was over 1,100 penguins. And that’s one of the best memories of making this film.”

Once the shooting was complete, re-entry was particularly difficult for Jacquet. As insurance, similar scenes had been captured several times, which meant returning to 120 hours of footage. Facing an accelerated post-production schedule, the editing was completed in a mere seven months. “To make this kind of film you really need to believe in it,” Jacquet maintains. “It really has to be a dream that you absolutely need to express, because it requires an enormous sacrifice. And you need a combination of technical competence, talent and luck.”

Jacquet’s crew clearly had all the above. The March of the Penguins (distributed by Warner Independent Pictures in association with National Geographic Feature Films) arrives on American screens this summer, but for 80 beautiful minutes, the viewer will experience a polar winter at its best.


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