Courting penguinsThis documentary film follows the breeding cycle of Emperor Penguins in the Antarctic.

Around March of each year, all the penguins head for the ancient breeding grounds, safely inshore where the ice will not melt even in summer. Some of them trek for 70 miles to get there, walking in great caravans, single file, day and night for up to a week. They all arrive just about simultaneously – those who don’t get lost and “simply fade away” as the narrator Morgan Freeman coyly puts it. The path is never the same because the ice and snow shifts each year yet somehow, mysteriously, they find the way.

Once there, the penguins go about selecting a breeding partner. This again is a mysterious process as nobody knows what they are looking for. There are more female than male penguins, so not everybody gets to pair off. Once they have found a partner, they mate and await the egg – just one egg.

There is no food at the breeding ground, and no water other than the snow that gets blown there in harsh freezing winds and icy storms. Thus, once the egg is laid, the mother passes it to the father for safekeeping while she treks back to the sea to refuel. If the egg leaves the protection of that warm space on the parental feet and under the parental snuggleflap for more than even a few moments, it will freeze and the chick will never hatch. It is a tricky business swapping it over and the parents take great care, rehearsing many times before the egg is actually transferred.

By now, the mother penguin has lost up to a third of her bodyweight in the two months since she left the sea, in the trek and the starvation and the production of the all-important egg. She treks back to the shore, much further away now that the antarctic winter has frozen the sea over, and feeds until she has regained as much weight as she can and stored a bellyful for her chick. Meanwhile, the father penguins have been huddling together, taking care of the egg, fending off unbelievably harsh weather, and eating nothing but snow. If the mother penguin does not return before the chick is hatched, he has a little milky something saved up to cough up for the chick, but that’s all.

Once the mother arrives, and once the chick has hatched so that it can bond with the father and they can learn one another’s calls, the father leaves to find the sea. He has been without food for up to four months now, and has lost up to half of his bodyweight. The mother penguins leave to re-stock with food even before the fathers return, which is why it is so important that the father and the chick should learn one another’s calls – they must be able to find each other when the father comes back. From now, until the summer comes, mother and father take it in turns – one tending the chick whlie the other treks to the sea for fish. As the weather warms, the sea gets closer and the trek shorter. Finally, the sea is close enough for the adult penguins to leave, and the young penguins are left behind. After a few weeks growing stronger, they too take to the sea and live there until, in their fifth year, instinct calls them somehow, mysteriously, to return.

It’s an amazing story. Many penguins and many chicks don’t make it. Both the mother and the father are needed to raise the chick, and if either one of them falters in the treks back and forth from the sea – particularly those first journeys after months of starvation – the chick too will die. If either one of them is taken by a predator, the chick too will die. If either of them fails in its duty while tending the chick, it will die. Predators even come to the breeding ground to prey on the chicks.

I loved the story, I loved the penguins, I loved the camerawork and I loved the scenery. The narration, however, was disappointing.

Firstly, it was a shame that the darker aspects of penguin life were so glossed over. The death of many penguins and chicks was played down as “disappearing”, “fading away”, “not making it”. There is minimal predator action – one scene of a predator leopard seal where all you see is the seal snapping about under the water, some penguins jumping out of the water, and one penguin that gets half way out of the water and slides back in; and one scene where an unidentified (!) bird of prey probably takes a chick, although again this is all implied rather than shown. Even the sex is a romanticised slow-motion affair, in which the male appears (because of the slow speed) to caress the female with his beak when in reality he is more likely to be holding her in place so that he can line himself up. The narrator does not even advert to the fact that they are having sex, you just get the pictures. No doubt all this was designed to avoid offence to parents of young children, but frankly as a parent of a young child I would rather she should experience truth than some Disneyfied version of real life in which death and sex are never seen.

Secondly, there was an awful lot of anthropomorphism. (Perhaps this is a British / US thing, and the original French version, La Marche de l’Empereur is less annoying.) You just longed for David Attenborough to be doing it. There was a lot of sentimental claptrap about how the penguins were doing all this “for love” and interpretation of their activities that was so human-centred it was unreal, such as when the courting rituals were underway and the “ladies” were fighing over who got a man and who was left out.

Finally, it really bugged me that the female penguins did not get their due. The male penguins were described as incredible, and amazing, and committed, and enduring and all the rest of it as they clung onto the eggs while the females went for food, with the implication that the female penguins were just copping out, with the men having to take the slack and starve themselves while the females filled their bellies. There was barely a word about the epic strength of the female penguins as they too underwent remarkable privations for the sake of their eggs. Even in penguin documentaries it is all about da menz!

(If you don’t believe me, here is one review I found which describes the story straight: “Once the egg is laid, the female penguins nick off back to the sea where they swim around, eating and having a great time, whilst the males are left to hatch the eggs. After two months, the eggs hatch and the females return with food, at which point the males begin a constant trek to the sea and back in order to gather enough food to keep the penguin chicks in the style to which they’ve become accustomed.” Where do they get off, those lazy high-maintenance penguin laydees?!)

One line in the narration was telling – the male penguin’s egg duties were described as “one of nature’s most endearing and amazing role reversals” (or words to that effect).

What exactly does that mean? Nature has reversed roles? What is the role that is being reversed? If it is the male penguin’s role to sit on eggs while the mother gets the fish, then that is the male penguin’s role. It is not a role reversal to fulfill one’s role. The only “reversal” here is of the roles that we, as humans used to living in patriarchy, expect male and female to play. We expect male animals to sow their seeds and then clear off, just as we expect females to do all the nurturing and self-sacrifice to raise her young. What is challenged by the penguin’s breeding patterns is not the male penguin’s natural role, but the male human’s social expectation.

Otherwise, we have to imagine, perhaps, the female penguin nagging at her partner – “Look, Percy, I know it’s my job to look after the egg, but y’know, I want to go out and find myself and there are all these fish I just want to go and eat. You always get the fish and I don’t see why we female penguins should have to stay at home all the damned time in these icy storms. So I’ll tell you what – you stay here and do my job and I’ll see what it’s like to be a liberated feminist hairy-legged penguin laddette for a bit. And if you think I’m going to bring you any fish back then you’ve got another think coming. Down with patriarchy!”

Hmm, that would be quite cool, too. [wink]

In this regard, it is worth noting that many other species also have much more male involvement in chlidrearing than this male-centred narration would have us believe is the norm. Seahorses for example.

So, yes, the narration and interpretation was annoyingly human-centred and specifically it was annoyingly male-centred. But the film, utterly beautiful. And those penguin chicks are cu-u-ute.