A brown pelican meets filmmaker Judy Irving during the shoot for 'Pelican Dreams.'

Irving Glides from Parrots to Pelicans

Michael Fox September 22, 2010

If anyone can make a soulful documentary about pelicans, it’s Judy Irving. The veteran director of The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (2003) discovered the winged subjects of that film through its grounded hero, Mark Bittner, but she has a history with brown pelicans. “I grew up with them on the East Coast and I live with them on the West Coast, and I love them,” she said. “I relate to their awkwardness on land and their gracefulness in the air. But I didn’t want to make a science documentary. I didn’t want to make your basic TV animal show. I wanted it to be a personal exploration, somehow.”  When a pelican decamped in a lane of the Golden Gate Bridge in 2008, jamming up traffic, Irving was presented with an opening—for her film, and for herself.

Pelican Dreams tracks Gigi—“Wildlife researchers don’t normally name birds,” Irving notes, “but I’m a filmmaker, so I can do it”—from the bridge to the Seabird Rescue Center in Fairfield, and beyond. But her journey is but one of the threads that’s pulled Irving in a multitude of directions.

“The filming itself is an exploration,” she said. “That’s how a lot of documentaries get made; that’s what’s fun about it. As I’ve been getting more and more into it, I realize that the film is about our ways of knowing something. How do we know a pelican? A biologist tends to focus on units in a population. Wildlife rehabilitation focuses on one individual animal after another in their care. A surfer experiences and knows pelicans in other ways, maybe nonverbal, maybe spiritual. A fisherman is competing to a certain extent with pelicans. These are some of my character types.”

Irving figures that her personal relationship with nature and pelicans will induce viewers to fall in love with the “winged dinosaurs,” then she’ll slip in a section on the historical exploitation and devastation of that species by our species. The massive BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and the effects of oil on feathers, is a current reference point, of course. But pelicans were hunted for plumes for ladies’ hats in the early 1900s, and populations were further devastated by the massive usage of DDT from 1940 to 1960. Pelicans were declared endangered before there was an Endangered Species Act, Irving noted, and their plight was one of the factors that led to its passage. But there are other, everyday hazards that pelicans encounter.

“The biggest problem is fishing line and fish hooks,” Irving reported. “Because pelicans tend to get very enthusiastic about getting the bait on lines. Those injuries are more prevalent than oil spills over the long hall.”

In our culture, nature is populated by anthropomorphized animals in animated films. Werner Herzog’s work provides a harsh corrective, depicting nature as brutal, indifferent and anything but romantic. Irving eschews both viewpoints, to no one’s surprise.

“Herzog has a point,” she mused. “Nature is implacable. Nature is going to do what it will do. If we’re going to spill millions of gallons in the gulf, it will have an effect. I get the feeling from Herzog that he sort of hates nature. I want to go there. I want to experience the wild. Not something like a wild party where you drink a lot, or a road you drive down real fast, but I want to experience something that’s naturally wild, that’s wild out there on the planet.”

Irving estimates that she’s perhaps halfway through production on Pelican Dreams, and won’t complete the film for several years. As opposed to Wild Parrots, which she shot on 16mm film, she’s shooting this one on a variety of formats—16mm, standard and high-definition video, along with some slomo HD footage she recently shot in the Channel Islands. Irving plans to have a rough cut sometime in 2011, but won’t rush things.

“Film is a very expensive thing to me, and you want to make it so it lasts and lasts and lasts,” she declared. “You want it to be classic. You don’t want it to be dated. I want this to be the film about pelicans that people watch 20 years from now. So it’s worth it to put four or five years into it.”

The patience Irving shows in the editing suite reflects the state she achieves on location.
“I’ve been a documentary filmmaker for over 35 years, and most of my films have had to do with the environment,” she explained. “The happiest I ever am is when I’m sitting with the camera watching animals. There’s a lot of waiting and watching. You calm down and you slow down, and you align your own pace with the pace of the earth, which is a lot slower than the urban pace. It’s kind of like a meditation. You slow down, you start to focus, and you see all kinds of things you didn’t notice when you got there.”

Notes from the Underground
Susannah Greason Robbins is the new director of the San Francisco Film Office … Joe Graham’s Strapped  opens this Friday, September 24 at the Quad in NYC. … Geoff Alexander’s definitive study of educational films, Academic Films for the Classroom: A History, comes out next week.

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