Friday, January 06, 2006

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill

Dir. Judy Irving

I love it when wilderness thrives in our cities. At the end of my block in New Paltz was a Century 21 realtor whose freshly paved parking lot was being attacked by bamboo. Originally planted as a nice decoration, the fast-growing bamboo cracked right through the asphalt growing up through puddles and gaining a couple of inches on the parking lot every year. Cold comfort when you consider how much earth we pave every day, but I still cheer for aggressive natural reclamation.

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill documents a flock of parrots who've taken up residence in San Francisco. Born of parrots trapped and shipped from Argentina, these birds have escaped and created a healthy and growing flock in the hilly city.

The movie also tells the story of Mark Bittner whose love for the parrots manifests itself through advocacy, feeding and documentation. He becomes the narrator of the film and his voice oozes with authenticity. It is obvious that he loves and cares for these parrots identifying them by names and caring for injured birds.

The question of anthropomorphism is always difficult in these kinds of documentaries. This film does a good job of talking about that risk, and despite the heavy attention paid to a loner bird named Conner, the heartstrings seem pretty loyal to the bird's narratives. When Mark gets a chance to speak in front of the City Council who are deciding what to do with the birds, he calls for them to simply leave them alone.

There is a real difference between films like the Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill and recent nature films like The March of the Penguins and Grizzly Man. This film does not have to go searching into animal's habitats to find a great story or compelling graphics. Of course the Wild Parrots is a film made by long-time environmental film-maker Judy Irving for Docu-rama rather than a corporate film.

At the heart of this problem is a disconnect between cities and nature. The belief that nature is somewhere out there in a pristine form untouched by humans is ignorant. The air and water of Los Angeles are important -- animals LIVE there -- some of those animals are even humans. One consequence of this kind of thinking is that environmental fights are located only in places where spotted owls live, thus toxic waste that causes cancer, air emissions that cause asthma and lead paint which causes birth defects aren't environmental issues because they are located in the city.

One of the best ways to combat this kind of foolish thinking is to examine the nature surrounding us. When I lived in New Paltz I tried to study the common and local grey squirrels. Here in Northern California we have the opportunity to study a gang of hummingbirds. Notice the feral cats in your neighborhood, or the times that insects come out. Another way is to think about the politics of environmental issues that affect cities. Issues like water, air quality, environmental racism and transportation inequity.

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill makes an argument in a compelling way. The parrots are persuasive in part because they are smart and form human-like pairs. But for me, the birds story is really neat because they thrive in a place where they were discarded. In the film we get to see some third generation babies, who are truly wild parrots of San Francisco including new color markings.

This is the best nature film since The Witness. See it now.