It's Been Real
March of the Penguins
It's Been Real sets out to examine and analyze the documentary in all of its forms, looking at differing forms of expression, variant approaches to subject matter, and at our unending tendency to dramatize true events as a way of understanding our engagement with them.

"In some ways, this is a story of survival, a tale of life over death. But it's more than that, really. It's a love story ["¦] They're not that different from us, really."-Morgan Freeman

I don't watch cute animal videos. Part of that is because the only time I regularly spend on Youtube is looking for clips for one of my features for this website, and part of that is because I can almost always find a better use for my time. This isn't meant to condescend to any of you who try to spend as much of your time as possible watching cute animal videos (in fact, at least a few contributors to this site fall into that category); I fully support everyone doing what makes them happy, provided that harms no one else, and if watching a monkey ride a pig or a walrus masturbate helps you get your rocks off, all the power to you. But it has never really done much for me.

So I didn't see March of the Penguins when it was released theatrically in 2005, partially because I worried it would be a really long cute animal video and partially because I didn't really watch a whole lot of documentaries back then. Yet when I began planning this feature (an effort I undertook in part because I've spent much of my life not watching a whole lot of documentaries), I thought about March of the Penguins almost immediately. And this is because of how clearly I think it relates to one of the central concerns of this column, to, as I say in the introduction for each installment, "our unending tendency to dramatize true events."

All documentaries attempt to dramatize real events; in fact, that is the express purpose of a documentary. I think, however, that nature documentaries have it easier than the rest. It can be difficult to graft a true story, unfolding before the filmmaker's eyes in real time, into a cinematic shape. This lends lesser documentaries a formlessness that is rare in narrative features. This is less of a problem for nature documentaries, though, because those films are generally conceived from the first with a narrative in mind. Nature filmmakers rarely say, "I'm just going to take this camera out to Africa and turn it on. We'll see what happens." Rather, they set out to document a specific event that is known to happen at a specific place in a specific time. And unlike less predictable humans, nature tends to stick to its appointments.

What about non-nature documentaries that aim to chronicle a specific event, or those that are constructed post facto as a remembrance? Its pretty obvious, for example, that Morgan Spurlock knew pretty much what would happen when he ate McDonalds for a month in Super Size Me and when James Marsh set out to make Man on Wire, he knew he was making a movie about a specific event. I would say these are different because in the first instance, the subject is intending to document something because of inherent curiosity (Spurlock could guess, but wasn't sure what would happen, while the march of the emperor penguins depicted in this film occurs like clockwork every year) and in the second the filmmaker is left at the whims of archival footage with which he must build his narrative.

Nature documentaries have an inherent advantage because people tend to anthropomorphize animals. This is why there are so many videos of animals doing "people things" like flushing the toilet or watching television that have millions of views on Youtube. This is why some people refer to their animals as their children. This is why I just asked my dog if she wanted to "come hang out" as if she understood those words, or even the concept of hanging out. We almost instinctively apply human traits and personalities to animals, even though this is an inherently flawed exercise. So when we watch a nature documentary, we're already doing the work of empathizing with the animals on screen, and without anyone who can speak for themselves in the movie, its relatively easy to create a narrative around creatures who wouldn't even understand the concept of the term narrative.

Directed by Luc Jacquet, and narrated by the soothing, sonorous voice of Morgan Freeman, March of the Penguins depicts the annual journey of the emperor penguins of Antarctica from the sea to their breeding grounds and back again. This is an incredibly harrowing journey, undertaken in brutal conditions and with countless perils along the way. These penguins fight the elements, ever-changing terrain, starvation, predators and rivals to find a mate, lay an egg, and protect that egg and the resultant chick until said chick can reach the ocean and truly begin its life. This is a remarkable journey, and watching it is an automatic affirmation of the will to survive and the strength to persevere.

But that is not what we're supposed to take from the movie, at least not if the narration and the film's promotion are to be believed. No, we're supposed to view March of the Penguins as a love story, a tale about two penguins meeting and falling in love, and later, about each of those penguins falling in love with their chick and about their chick learning to love them back. And, I guess, about how love conquers all. Except that is not what happens in this movie. There's no way to make this point without coming across as an asshole to any of you out there who think that pointing out how incorrect we are to anthropomorphize animals is a pointless and cruel exercise, so bear with me anyway, if you would: Penguins do not fall in love (at least not in remotely the same way that we do). Penguins do not know what love is. Penguins are incapable of understanding the idea of love, and framing a nature documentary following the mating rituals of penguins as a love story is disingenuous to say the least.

However, is it any more disingenuous than framing any other documentary as a true account of any set of events? I would argue that it is, but not as much more so as you might think. Its such an overstated fact that its become a cliché at this point, but there is a law of physics that states that the act of observing something changes that which is being observed. The mere presence of a video camera is almost guaranteed to at least slightly change the behavior of the people being filmed. And even in the case of documentaries built entirely around archival footage, the director and the editor still get final say as to the shape the movie takes, as to what gets cut and what remains, and in what order it is shown. I hate to pull back the curtain too quickly here for any of you who have not been following this feature regularly, but documentaries are not true accounts of events.

Documentaries are one person's (or, usually, several peoples') attempt to dramatize actual events as a way of understanding our engagement with them. A documentary has a story just like a narrative feature does, and just like a movie "based on true events," the things that occur in a documentary (usually) actually happened. But the way we see them is ultimately up to the director, not to us. So while I may disagree with Luc Jacquet's decision to frame March of the Penguins as a love story rather than a survival story, I can't argue that it was his right to do that. The title of this column is It's Been Real, because it focuses on documentaries, a genre aimed at depicting real events. It is important, however, that we never lose sight of just how unreal even cinema's most dedicatedly realistic genre truly is.

Read more It's Been Real here

Coming up on It's Been Real:

1/22: Man with the Movie Camera

2/5: Political Documentary Month: The War Room

2/19: Political Documentary Month: Street Fight

3/4: Waltz with Bashir

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