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MARCH OF THE PENGUINS (article first published : 2006-03-4)

Noted as the world's second highest grossing documentary feature after Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, this enchanting and fascinating film by Frenchman Luc Jacquet has won universal rave reviews and stands to win an Oscar in the wee hours of Monday morning, when the 78th annual bash is held in Los Angeles.

The gloriously shot story of a year in the extraordinary life of Antarctica's resilient emperor penguin, the film has two versions - the original French, in which various penguins have identities and voices by multiple narrators who speak in the first person, and an American version (labelled superior), which has a more serious and conventional, more poetic and poignant, narration by Morgan Freeman only.

The version in Durban, currently running at Cinema Nouveau and distributed by Anant Singh's Videovision, is in the original French with subtitles and, it must be said, the narrative approach tends towards the too-cutesy at times.

But this in no way detracts from the high quality of a production which, albeit slow-moving, is informative, hugely entertaining, as well as moving, and endlessly beautiful to look at.

The film's focus is on how, every March, Emperor penguins re-enact a journey that has been their lot for tens of thousands of years: they take a massive trek, via waddling and sliding on their bellies, most of the time in a loose single file, to find a mate at their breeding ground some 110 km inland.

How they find their way there, in a constantly changing landscape of snow and ice, is a mystery, but once there, the penguins face constant hardships after finding a partner, going through mating rituals and producing an egg, then a chick.

But it's not quite as simple or straightforward as that.

In insanely icy temperatures, amid continually whipping winds, and with the closest food and water many days waddle away, the penguins battle the elements and starvation - as well as predators - to shelter themselves and their cute offspring.

Each parent has a turn keeping the egg warm and off the ice. It's no mean mission as they have to balance it upon their feet - and the transfer from one set of feet to another is no simple task, not all the penguins successfully completing it.

The females are first to march off to the ocean to feed while their mates, huddled in a group for days on end, in stinging blizzards, warm and protect the eggs. Then, when the womenfolk return to regurgitate into the mouths of their chicks, the fathers hit the road, weakened after four months without food, to fill their empty bellies. Then, as the chicks grow and face predators including albatrosses and, later, sea lions, so they join the march in the circle of life.

Up-close-and-personal takes on a new meaning in this superb film which has been lovingly shot and partially funded by the National Geographic channel.

I can't wait for the DVD which will hopefully offer both narrations and also give glimpses into the obviously mammoth task it became to shoot this extraordinary documentary. Rating 9/10 Billy Suter.




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