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Guest Post: Finding the Perfect Animal Doc Subject As She’s Being “Arrested” on the Golden Gate Bridge

Guest Post: Finding the Perfect Animal Doc Subject As She's Being "Arrested" on the Golden Gate Bridge

I
like to film relationships, especially those between urban people and wild
animals. Pelicans have intrigued me since I was a child — they remind me of
flying dinosaurs: so graceful in the air, so clumsy on land. I started my
pelican film by trying to capture them soaring out of the San Francisco fog and
then disappearing back into it. I’d seen this once, but hadn’t been able to
film it. The image stayed with me, a metaphor for how mysterious pelicans’
lives are, despite their close proximity to humans.

Then
my life took an abrupt turn, when a friend told me I should really be making a
film about a homeless street musician and his remarkable relationship with a
flock of parrots. The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill changed my life: I
married the protagonist, Mark Bittner, and the film did so well in theaters,
grossing over three million dollars, that it catapulted me out of the trenches
of environmental filmmaking and allowed me to get back to my favorite bird. 

Pelican
Dreams
just opened in the San Francisco Bay Area, will have its national
premiere on November 7th in Los Angeles and NYC, and will fly out to
the rest of the country from there. Each of these films, Parrots and Pelicans,
took over five years to complete, probably because I’m usually the only crew.
Occasionally I hire a camera person, but normally I produce, direct, shoot, and
edit my movies. A long production period allows me to delve into my subject,
explore what might turn out to be blind alleys, and follow stories and
relationships as they unfold over time. 

I
like to make documentaries that have a narrative arc, like fiction films,
rather than relying on talking heads and B rolls or the usual nature-film
techniques: “tooth and claw” exaggeration, manipulation of animals’ lives,
digital and other fakery. But where to begin? I was mulling this over when a
hungry, tired young pelican landed by mistake on the roadway of the Golden Gate
Bridge and caused a spectacular traffic jam. She got herself “arrested” and taken away
in a police car — and gave me the story line I’d been looking for.

I followed
her to a wildlife hospital northeast of San Francisco, filming her time in
human hands and hoping for her release back to the wild. The world of wildlife
rehabilitators, a largely volunteer, almost invisible underground railroad for
wild animals, opened up to me. From them I learned that you’re not supposed to
hand feed your wild charges, make eye contact, or name them. But I named her
anyway: “Gigi,” for Golden Gate.  

Later,
I heard about a couple who own a health-food store who actually live with
pelicans. Through Dani and Bill Nicholson, I got to know my second avian star,
“Morro,” who lives in their backyard near Morro Bay with chickens, geese, and a
duck.

I
was curious, when I started, about wildness. How close can you get to a wild
animal without taming or harming it? Why do we need wildness in our lives, and
how can we protect it? The pelicans’ migratory route stretches from Baja Mexico
to the Columbia River, but my favorite location was Santa Barbara Island in
southern California, where they breed, nest, and raise chicks.

Although
pelicans’ lives seem dreamlike, surfing wave crests and doing high-dives like
Olympic athletes, they have their share of nightmares: climate change-related
frostbite, massive oil spills, fishing-line and fishhook injuries, and
starvation from overfishing. The film, though, is essentially a valentine to
these ancient, resilient birds.

As
the years went by, I shifted from 16mm film to HD video and beyond, with six
different formats contributing to the final movie. Funding came from
foundations, individuals, and from Wild Parrots royalties. (Pelican Media, my
production company, is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.)

This
week, I’ve been doing Q&As after the screenings here in the Bay Area. One of
the questions is always, “What’s next?” I still like stories about the
relationships between urban people and wild animals. If you have a good one,
I’d like to hear it. Meanwhile, I need to help this film “fly.” 

Judy
Irving is a San Francisco-based documentary filmmaker who has had three
nonfiction features (
Pelican Dreams, The
Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, Dark Circle) released theatrically. Pelican
Dreams opens in NYC and LA on November 7.

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