November 10, 2005

‘Penguins’ director Jacquet not one to brag

By Bob Tourtellotte

LOS ANGELES (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 January 31, and Oscars will
be handed out on March 5.


Adding 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.

"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."