Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, The (2003) ****
A documentary-plus produced, directed, shot, edited by Judy Irving, From the eponymous book by Mark Bittner. Music, Chris Michie. Released by Shadow Distribution. 83 minutes. Rated G.
A very special case, this film is one of the very best I have seen in recent years. I researched its history and found out that it debuted in the Austin Film Festival in October 2003, and later, in 2005, was shown to an enormous number of festivals in the USA and became a hit in all of them. Curiously, no festival abroad seems to have scheduled it - yet, I, a regular at the Cannes International Film Festival, found no mention of this gem at the 2004 or 2004 fests.
San Francisco, which is named for the beloved Saint Francis (he who also talked to birds) had its avian-movie introduction in "The Birdman of Alcatraz." Fittingly, the city is host to this "reality" document about a man, Mark Bittner in his late 40s, and his love and fascination for "conures," a bunch (or flock) of 45 or more South American birds which (who?) live (and reproduce) within the confines of Telegraph Hill, San Francisco is chilly compared to much of South America, yet the birds survive, even thrive.
How the parrots, all blue-crowned save one red-headed interloper, got to San Francisco, is a collection of explanations, theories, facts or wild guesses. But how they found a friend, protector and care-taker is no mystery. He is Mark Bittner, a would-be musician and "dharma bum" who over twenty-six years ago, moved to S.F. He did not become a practicing musician, certainly lived in near-poverty, subsisted with odd jobs, inhabited various temporary lodgings until, by invitation from a well-to-do couple, became a squatter in an unoccupied old place they owned.
Bittner, with his big hair and ponytail, thick glasses, pleasant mien and such, is authentically "simpatico." When he discovered the parrots it was love at first sight. It was also the end of a lifelong search for identity:"Who am I, and what am I here for?"
The birds reciprocated. Bittner not only took care of them but became their analyst, historian and major connoisseur. He also wrote about them. Is it not time for a University to make him an honorary professor?
He protected the birds as much as he could, and it is no exaggeration to say, bonded with them. So, in Judy Irving's film we get a wonderful, colorful, ornithological story the like of which did not previously exist.
The parrots thrive, yet have their share of problems, occasional illnesses, and so on, plus attacks by killer hawks. Not so oddly, when we see small groups of flying hawks, there's something magnificent in the graceful, effortless, elegant birds of prey. No airplanes can match them!
As for the conures, seen closeup, they are not only a joy for our eyes but a constant reminder to us of their different personalities. Couples are constituted; love affairs thrive but sometimes are halted by death; one bird has established itself permanently inside Bittner's dwelling; Bittner doctors him up; individual characteristic are revealed, etc. etc. Bondings between birds as well as between them and Bittner fascinate us.
The San Fancisco people on the screen are a motley bunch with a variety of guesses and beliefs about the parrots, and the humans overall appreciate the birds. It is heartening. So is the movie's maker Judy Irving whose total understanding for Mr. Bittner and "his" parrots goes beyond plain sympathy. There is a beautiful rapport between birds and people, a rapport with solid bases, while, at the same time, Mark Bittner avoids (and states it) the anthropomorphizing of animals. But he encourages us to see the differences - often major-among "his" birds - and by extension, among all other creatures.
There is a warm, wonderful addendum to the end of the documentary. But I will not disclose it.