Tension fills the auditorium as the host of the glittering awards ceremony opens the envelope. This is the big one: “The award for the best animal ensemble cast ever seen in a movie goes to … Donne-Moi Des Ailes/Spread Your Wings.” Hurraaaahhhh! The humans in the audience squawk in delight, leap to their feet and give the 20 geese, led by cute little Akka, a standing ovation as they fly in V formation onto the stage to receive their prize. Not one goose does a gooey poop on anyone in the audience. How good is that!
The footage of the flying geese in the French-Norwegian film Donne-Moi Des Ailes (a literal translation would be Give Me Wings*) – one of the highlights of the 2020 Alliance Française French Film Festival in Australia – is so spectacular that you can’t help but wonder how on earth they made this movie. Has computer animation become so sophisticated that fake geese in flight can look so amazingly lifelike? And on the ground, how did they get the gaggle of geese to perform so obediently for the cameras?
The plot sounds totally unreal: in the Camargue wetlands of southern France, an eccentric ornithologist (played by Jean-Paul Rouve) wants to teach an endangered species of geese how to take a safer route on their annual migration north (airports and hunters on the traditional route are the biggest dangers). Helped by his teenage son (played by Louis Vazquez, pictured above) he hatches 20 eggs in an incubator at home. Then father and son don bird-like robes for months so that the goslings think this is what parental geese look like (though the effect is more like Franciscan friars meet the French Foreign Legion). They also have to train the birds to fly alongside the mother of all fake geese – a homemade ultra-light aircraft.
When the time is right and the birds are strong enough, they will drive the geese up to to the Arctic Circle to show them their summer feeding territory in Norway and chill out a bit. Then get them to follow the ultra-light all the way home, which will enable the birds to memorise the migration route. It’s an epic journey, including crossing parts of the notoriously rough North Sea. What could possibly go wrong?
The real deal
The good news is that authentic film-making is alive and kicking and flapping. The birds are real, and Spread Your Wings is based on a true story, that of “The French Birdman” Christian Moullec, who has educated many a bird in this way, and supervised the training of the geese for the film. You can even join him on a flight with birds in France if you want to. (You will need a good head for heights.) Here is a beautiful video from National Geographic showcasing the amazing partnership and understanding between him and the birds.
The director of Spread Your Wings, Nicolas Vanier, is a bit of an adventurer himself, and he seems to relish working with children and animals. He has made wildlife documentaries, including one of an epic journey he undertook by himself with sleigh dogs. His previous feature film, Belle et Sébastien, was about a boy’s chance encounters with a mysterious “beast” (a wolf maybe, or something worse?) that was terrorising the sheep and villagers high up in the French Alps, although the real beasts were the humans themselves.
For Spread Your Wings, he wanted as much authenticity on the set as possible, making sure that the two main actors were present as the eggs hatched, and that they were the first people the birds set eyes on, to establish the parental bond and trust. The actors then had to spend three months rearing their 20 ‘offspring’. The video below shows what was in involved in the making of Spread Your Wings, and is well worth watching even if you don’t understand French.
A film for our times
Spread Your Wings is best seen on the big screen, to take in the expansive bird’s eye views of the magnificent French and Norwegian scenery. It’s thought-provoking and educational too – bird migration is complicated and a feat of endurance. In recent times we have become a lot more aware of the fragility of the natural world: fires have raged in the Amazon jungle and in great swathes of Australia, even in rainforests where the moisture content is meant to thwart flames spreading.
This growing awareness is reflected in the progression of the 14-year-old character, Thomas. He and his mother are urban creatures: he arrives reluctantly at the wetlands to stay with his father looking like a pampered, perfectly groomed K-pop star wannabe and the only issue of importance is the strength of the wi-fi signal so he can play games on his gadgets. But as he becomes immersed in the world of the wetlands and the geese, his shallowness fades and he starts to learn some vital life lessons himself. As Palace Cinemas’ website film synopsis puts it: “Spread Your Wings gently echoes the broader international rise of young activists debating the future of a planet they are about to inherit. It is a beautiful film; a timely family adventure about how even the smallest gestures can have a huge impact.”
Related vocabulary in My Five Romance languages
From left: a goose, geese, wings, to fly
- French – une oie, oies, ailes, voler
- Italian – un’oca, oche, ali, volare
- Portuguese – um ganso, gansos, asas, voar
- Spanish – un ganso, gansos, alas, volar
- Romanian – o gâscă, gâște, aripi, zbura
* Fun fact: for the Spanish market, the film was called Volando Juntos (“flying together”). M5R