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Tribeca ’10 | Icelandic Directing Duo Explore Falcon’s Role in Geopolitics

Tribeca '10 | Icelandic Directing Duo Explore Falcon's Role in Geopolitics

Tribeca will play host the world premiere of “Feathered Cocaine” from Icelandic filmmakers’ Thorkell Hardarson and Örn Marino Arnarson. This marks their first English language feature documentary.

Behind drugs, people, and weapons, falcon smuggling has become the world’s most mysterious and profitable illegal trade. To the wealthy elite throughout the Persian Gulf, falcon hunting is a passion beyond compare. The coveted birds regularly command prices from $25,000 to $1 million, earning them the nickname “feathered cocaine” as thieves race to ransack vast areas of the world in an addictive quest.

In their directorial debut, Icelandic filmmakers Thorkell Hardarson and Örn Marino Arnarson unspool the shady connections between this falcon trade and royal dynasties, the CIA and KGB, the oil industry, American government, and Al-Qaeda. At the center of their story is Alan Parrot, aka Hari Har Singh Khalsa. After graduating high school in the early 1970s, Alan tricked his parents and took off on a one-way ticket to Tehran, Iran; obsessed from an early age, all he ever wanted was to work with falcons. Raising and training the exotic creatures for the royal court, he went on to export falcons to the president of the UAE professionally, implicating him as the one who first spurred the modern economy for the birds. Hardarson and Arnarson’s bold investigation reveals not only the wild behavior of men obsessed with a bird of prey, but the unlikely character behind the movement to impede their smuggling. [Synopsis courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival]

“Feathered Cocaine”
World Documentary Feature Competition
Director: Thorkell Hardarson, Örn Marino Arnarson
Editors: Thorkell Hardarson, Örn Marino Arnarson
Director of Photography: Halldor Gunnarsson
Executive Producer: Diana Holtzberg
Composer: Steingrimur E. Gudmundsson
Consulting Editor: Jeremy Stulberg
80 min., Iceland

[Editor’s Note: This is one interview in a series profiling directors whose films are screening at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.]

Directors Thorkell Hardarson and Orn Marino Arnarson on their cooking/filmmaking skills, and what lead them to make their first documentary in English, “Feathered Cocaine”…

We are both direct and produce as a tandem. We both studied filmmaking in European film schools in Italy and France. Then we worked in the Icelandic film industry for some years, doing miscellaneous jobs, until we met during an American Viking film shoot in 1994, which we both worked on. We both saw great potential in each other – mostly culinary potential though – and we share the concept that if you can’t cook properly, you can’t make a good film! In a way it was the cooking that drew us to each other, and also the love of a good story. After working side by side for a few years we formed our own production company in 2001, and started directing together and clawing our way up the hierarchical pyramid of filmmaking. “Feathered Cocaine” is our third feature length documentary – and the first in English.

The idea of a little local documentary entered our minds after hearing some amazing stories about falcons from a good friend of ours. So we began do do some research and soon found a common thread to all the falcon stories – geopolitics, power and too much money. In the beginning it was a thin thread but it became thicker over time and was wrapped all around the world. Two years into making the film, it led us to Osama Bin Laden, Al-Qaeda, geopolitics and Petrodollars. Caught up in the mess are falcons and their main prey, a very unique looking bird called the Houbara bustard, both of which are going regionally extinct in Central Asia – yet another man made environmental disaster, all for the sake of frivolous entertainment by the world’s richest power elite.

The two on the challenges they faced in finding people willing to talk…

We wanted to make a historical film about the special bond between man and bird and how the falcon always has played a role in geopolitics for centuries. We also wanted to give all sides an equal chance to explain themselves. The only problem was no one wanted to talk – it was akin to make a film about organized crime. Something was going on, but only smoke and mirrors could be seen from our standpoint. So the film automatically evolved into an investigative film with a much more hardball approach than anticipated in the beginning. In hindsight we are very grateful to the people that denied us interviews or revoked their permission for interviews hoping we would fade away. They actually are the ones who fueled our desire to go on at the darkest hours.

We knew we had a great subject at the beginning of our research – but when we were stonewalled with silence everywhere we looked for information, it certainly was a problem. In the end it actually was a blessing in disguise, because we knew for certain if no one wants to talk to you, you have a truly great subject. You just have to be persistent enough to find a hole in the wall of silence and obstruction, crawl through it, get the info out somehow and make the film without becoming a target or have an “accident” on the way.

Hardarson and Arnarson on why a Tribeca audience is an ideal one for this film. and on their inspirations…

Today there are so many good documentaries and the documentary film as such is developing rapidly so it is exciting to premiere our film at Tribeca, where the audience is at the same time demanding, open to new things and appreciative of classical storytelling. We think “Feathered Cocaine” tells a compelling story and opens up hidden worlds that many will want to peek into as we did, about these extraordinary birds of prey and those who are obsessed with them. In the end it always boils down to the same thing: a great story with a twist.

There are many films that inspired us along the way, both fiction and documentaries. What they all have in common is a certain soulfulness – or the feeling of an emotional journey. The most important aspect of a film is what it leaves behind, percolating, in the mind of the viewers. If we were to name one film, “Darwin’s Nightmare” comes quickly to mind. That film took over four years to make. Something we relate to since “Feathered Cocaine” took six years to make.

The two on what’s in store for their future together…

After marinating in the murky world of petrodollars, geopolitics and terrorism for such a long time we decided to take a break and shoot a classical wildlife film about the North Atlantic salmon, which we will premiere in ten months or so. We also have a few other projects ready to go, some deal with geopolitics, others deal with nature, sometimes they overlap. But, as always, their future depends on funding. One project stands out though – the story of how 22 tons of gold was stolen from the CIA during the last days of the Vietnam War and how that gold cursed the life of every one connected to it. Hopefully that film will see the light of day soon.

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