Review by C.J. Bunce
This week the world celebrates the inimitable penguin, now known to number at 12 million across Antarctica. Yesterday was World Penguin Day, and this week is the premier of The Penguin Counters, a wonderful new documentary from First Run Features with initial screenings at Cinema Village in New York City this week. Lawyer-turned-penguin researcher Ron Naveen has spent two decades studying and counting penguin populations, releasing the first “State of Antarctic Penguins” report this week.
The Penguin Counters, directed by Peter Getzels and Harriet Gordon, follows Naveen as he leads an excursion of researchers to the Antarctic with the task of counting all the penguins on the continent one by one, over the course of a week. By doing so Naveen demonstrates what most of the scientific community knows–that populations of certain species of penguins (Adélies and chinstraps) have dwindled over the past 20 years–but Naveen now can back that up with actual data. He and his team also learned that other populations, such as the gentoo, have learned to adapt and increase their numbers. One of the key causes of the declining populations is that a primary food source, krill, are dying from warming temperatures. In the film Naveen points to one mass of the tiny crustaceans beached from the record warming ocean temperatures as evidence.
Despite the seriousness of the topic, Getzels and Gordon take viewers along on an amazing trip where few have gone before, to a treacherous and strikingly beautiful place that one of the researchers says he sought out for having the qualities of a completely different planet with similarly unique landscapes and animal life. Unlike the typical wildlife documentary showing the “circle of life,” this film shows the positive world of the penguins as Naveen & Co. encounter them, with their tens of thousands of nests across the frozen lands. The filmmakers take two tangent trips along the way, one to visit the final burial ceremony in the Falkland Islands in 2011 of Frank Wild, Sir Ernest Shackleton’s “right-hand man” on his famous Antarctic voyage of exploration (his remains were only recently discovered). The other follows Naveen as he explores the site of a former processing plant for giant whales, now abandoned and taken over by its own local animal inhabitants.
Naveen serves as a good narrator of the journey, a traveling companion for the viewer, showing the goods and bads of the long journey to the Earth’s coldest environment, and, of course, explaining exactly how his small band of researchers count the penguins each year. A world as rarely seen by humans as the remote Mt. Everest can be found in Antarctica, with similarly sudden changes in weather conditions and corresponding dangers for travelers. To count all of the birds the team must traverse cliff-dwelling locations selected by the nesting penguins, and each day faces new dilemmas.
The Penguin Counters is a beautiful travelogue of the National Geographic variety, and as fascinating an exploration as Farley Mowat’s autobiography-turned Disney movie, Never Cry Wolf, which followed Mowat’s journeys researching wolves–and man driving off their populations–in subarctic Canada. Here the extraordinary penguins illustrate for mankind the nature of the planet in decline.
Check out the First Run Features website here and the film website here for additional cities that will show the award-winning documentary The Penguin Counters, expected to have a wider release in North America this summer.