Pelican Dreams Dir. Judy Irving

[Shadow Distribution; 2014]

Styles: birds
Others: The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill

An almost childlike enthusiasm and wonder informs the new documentary from filmmaker and bird enthusiast Judy Irving. Pelican Dreams follows the rehabilitation of two pelicans along the Western coast of the United States. The first of these was found on the Golden Gate Bridge in the summer of 2008, obstinately ignoring traffic. When Irving became aware of the bird and its plight, she saw an opportunity to make a film that explores issues like bird rescue, domestication, and our increasing impact on ecology. But the film began as something much simpler. Irving had an interest in and affection for pelicans, and seeing the bird on the bridge gave her the necessary push to create a film about them. Irving is a unique documentary filmmaker in that she does not make films about subjects in which she is an expert. Instead, she uses the documentary as an academic tool, using film as a process for learning. This sort of filmmaking could come across as unprepared or lazy, but in Irving’s case it doesn’t. Irving’s voiceover and interactions with ornithologists are often naïve, but to her earnestness is more important. This results in a film with an approachable, down-to-earth quality that’s rare in nature documentaries, which more frequently possess the dry, faceless tone of a talking textbook set to video.

Irving travels to the Channel Islands State Park to see wild pelicans in their natural habitat and give some background on the genus (in particular the brown pelican and American white pelican species) before diving into the ways in which humans are fucking things up. Whether through climate change, commercial fishing, chemical or oil spills, the human presence continues to encroach into the wild in increasingly alarming ways. But none of this is news to anyone, and the most potent tactic for communicating it is still to find ways to get us to empathize with these animals. What made Irving’s first film, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, so memorable and affecting was the way in which San Francisco resident Mark Bittner gave a unique personality to each individual parrot. His stories helped instill character and history to this species we share so little in common with. Pelican Dreams isn’t quite as successful, but not for lack of trying.

There are entire segments of the film devoted to harrowing scenes of rescuing pelicans from oil spills and fishing accidents, but none are as good at establishing empathy with the birds as the scenes of Morro at the Nicholsons. Morro is the second pelican whose recuperation is profiled in the film. While waiting for one of his wings to heal, Morro is shacked up with a couple who own a health food store, but also help rehabilitate birds in their backyard. The scenes of Morro in domestic situations (playing in a kiddie pool, admiring himself in a mirror, terrified of a lampshade) are the film’s most surreal — and best — moments. The rest of the film’s attempts at humanizing the birds, however, fall short.

Irving’s enthusiasm also creates a (probably unconscious) desire to domesticate the wild birds. She insists on calling the bird found on the Golden Gate Bridge, tagged as “P-193” by the International Bird Rescue, by the nickname “Gigi” (after G.G. Bridge). In her efforts to humanize the plights of these birds, Irving also befriends them. But we should remember that these birds are wild animals, and regardless of the bonds we form while they’re in captivity, they aren’t pets. Despite the noble efforts of organizations like the International Bird Rescue and WildCare — and people like the Nicholsons and filmmaker Judy Irving — the majority of mankind is still cancerous to these birds. The further they can get away from us, the better off they’ll be.

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