Published Jul 01, 2005One doesn't expect emotional fireworks from a film about a man and his parrots, but this tender documentary manages to deliver on that apparently unpromising premise. The subject is Mark Bittner, a homeless seeker who has befriended the parrots that have inexplicably nested in San Francisco's Telegraph Hill; he knows them intimately enough to be able to delineate their personalities, and is highly adept at dealing with the vagaries of inter-species relationships.
That Bittner is an ex-hippie and self-identified "dharma bum" caused me initial worry that this would be an exercise in new-age cant, but he proves to be a gentle and complex personality with a profound connection to his colourful charges. His work is a stunning testament to the fact that animals are not just mindless stuff for human use; he makes no bones about their acting like people, and makes a strong case for his claims.
One wrenching scene has Bittner describing the experience of a wounded bird's pathetic last days, in which an emotional bond of desperation was cut only by death. Many other scenes include his connection to an irascible off-colour bird with no companion of his own species, and thus makes it his business to defend the outsiders in the flock.
As we bounce back from the sensitive personality of Bittner to the reality of avian personalities, we're confronted with the possibility of relationships that are largely denied in human culture; inadvertently, it's a stinging riposte to Winged Migration's calendar-art that doesn't go beyond "birds are pretty."
I've been asked not to reveal the film's "surprise ending," but let it be known that the surprise is a pleasant one. (Mongrel Media)