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‘March of the Penguins’ helmer riding high

Luc Jacquet’s hit film could take home this year’s best documentary Oscar
/ Source: Reuters

If there is one person who has a lot to brag about this Oscar season, it is a Frenchman who is more at home in Antarctica than Hollywood.

But don’t tell him that.

Luc Jacquet, director of hit nature documentary “March of the Penguins,” is considered a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination, but for now he is just trying to make sense of the dizzying Hollywood awards season — glitz, glamour and celebrity galas.

“It’s really hard to understand. It’s not rational,” he told Reuters through an interpreter.

“At the same time, there’s this sort of intoxicating quality to it ... it’s the same feeling you get when you leave for Antarctica, that feeling of departing into an adventure.”

Hollywood is definitely an adventure for outsiders like Jacquet, and it can be a cold place for movie stars who have fallen off box office charts. But Jacquet? He is red hot.

His movie, which tracks one chilly mating season in the life of Antarctica’s Emperor Penguins, has landed at No. 2 on the list of highest-grossing documentaries ever with $76 million at U.S. and Canadian box offices.

And here’s a variation of a joke around Tinseltown: One producer says to another, “Who is going to star in your next movie?” The answer: “I don’t care, as long as it’s a penguin.”

But Jacquet doesn’t laugh. The joke doesn’t seem to translate. The tall, broad-shouldered, adventurer with a strong grip and surprisingly soft hands sits there, stone-faced.

Crunch time is coming soon in Hollywood for Jacquet and his penguins. Next week a committee of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which awards the Oscars, names 12 to 15 films on a short list for Oscar consideration.

Those films are then screened by the Academy’s documentary branch. Final nominees are named on Jan. 31, and Oscars will be handed out on March 5.

The human touchAdding to its momentum from box offices, “Penguins” has won several festival prizes and been nominated for the International Documentary Association’s (IDA) Pare Lorentz Award which, among other things, spotlights films that make use of nature and encourage activism.

Jacquet and his four-person crew spent more than a year on Antarctica trekking from the French science center, Dumont d’Urville, to the penguins’ mating ground where they filmed only a few hours a day due to the life-threatening cold.

“Penguins” is not only about penguins. It serves as a cautionary tale of global warming, and its narrative becomes an allegory for humans’ cycle of life.

“Documentaries have always chosen a scientific approach of describing animal behavior, but why always choose one way?,” Jacquet asked. “Something that’s very important is that stories tell people how to cope with life,” he said.

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“Penguins” is part of a wave of documentaries that in the past few years have pushed the boundaries for what people consider non-fiction films, making them seem more like full-length dramatic works.

This year the documentary field is crowded with popular and well-reviewed movies including dance saga “Mad Hot Ballroom,” business tale “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” “Grizzly Man” from iconic filmmaker Werner Herzog and “Murderball,” about quadriplegics playing wheelchair rugby.

The quality of the 2005 documentaries makes “Penguins”’ march to the Oscar fraught with peril, much like the Emperor’s trek to their mating ground.

“It only makes it harder to give awards,” said Sandra Ruch, executive director of the IDA.

But Jacquet seems unconcerned about awards. When asked what happens, how he may feel if — after all that has come his way in the past year — he doesn’t win the Oscar, the Frenchman stopped, reflected and shrugged.

“Life,” he said, “is beautiful.”