The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill
Docurama // G // $26.95 // December 26, 2005
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted December 14, 2005
Highly Recommended
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The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (2005) is a real charmer. What might have been an insufferably quirky documentary about a San Franciscan eccentric, or a dry nature show about a minor bird phenomenon is instead an utterly engrossing true story that's neither of these things. The film is partly the story of one man finding purpose and meaning in his life in a calling that, on the surface at least, seems to run counter to conventional ideas of employment. Party the film reveals the myriad personalities of a unique flock of birds and their relationship with human beings, and partly The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill is a love story, though just how integral this is doesn't become fully apparent until the very end.

No one knows for sure just how these small parrots, mostly cherry-headed conures indigenous to South America, came to nest in the wilds of San Francisco. The film offers up numerous urban legends, from stories of parrots escaping from a petshop truck that had overturned in the 1920s, to a crazy old lady who kept parrots in her home, which were then released en masse into the wild by the executors of her estate. Whatever the reason, the birds seemed to thrive in the famously cool and rainy Bay Area. While some of the birds still wear the metal bands around their ankles indicating they had been imported and quarantined, others clearly are the offspring of the older birds.

Enter Mark Bittner, an ex-hippie who resides in a scenic if structurally unsound Telegraph Hill cottage. With the proverbial "no visible means of support," Bittner lives off the good graces of various friends and neighbors, including an impressively generous couple who've let Bittner stay in their cottage, falling apart though it is, rent-free for three years. Something of a celebrity in the neighborhood, Bittner has become the self-appointed caretaker and documentarian of the wild parrots, and as the film opens locals and tourists ask him (mostly inane) questions about the birds.

At first, Bittner frankly comes off as a something of a loser, a bum whose proprietary interests in the birds initially seems merely an excuse to avoid holding down a "real job." Very quickly however, it becomes clear that Bittner, who had no formal training in ornithology, is in fact doing something quite valuable, conducting unique and invaluable scientific research.

Where parrot fanciers had regarded the wild birds of Telegraph Hill as little more than escaped merchandise while conservative ornithologists dismissed the birds because of their non-native status (and at one point want to "trap and exterminate" them), Bittner saw the chance for interaction with creatures that were both wild yet somewhat tame. He could get close enough to spot the extraordinarily varied personalities within the flock, birds whom he came to know well enough to recognize by their individual characteristics and give many of them names. Through it all, Bittner makes observations and suppositions about their behavior that would seem outrageous and unscientific were it not for the fact that many of these claims are completely supported in footage shot by director-cinematographer Judy Irving.

The stories of the individual birds: Tupelo, Connor, Sophie, etc., are consistently fascinating and sometimes quite moving, as is Bittner's bonding with some of the particularly unique animals, especially Connor, a Blue-Crown Parrot that lives with the flock but, because it's a different species, never is completely accepted.

By the end of the film, when Bittner grippingly tells the story of a parrot he came to know intimately while it was terminally ill, his speculation about what the dying bird was experiencing and feeling no longer seems far-fetched at all.

Video & Audio

Though listed as widescreen on some Internet sites, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill is presented in full frame format only. As the film was apparently shot in 16mm and blown up to 35mm, this isn't really a problem, and may even have been shown in the old Academy ratio during its theatrical run. The image is sharp with good color considering its source, and both the 5.1 Dolby and 2.0 stereo tracks are very strong. Unfortunately (and surprisingly, given this title's potential), there are no subtitles options.

Extra Features

For those that can't get enough of Bittner and the parrots, there are numerous supplements, most of which utilize leftover or newly-shot footage by Irving. Flock Update runs seven minutes and is definitely worth checking out as it plays like an epilogue to the main feature. (The news is good.) Of somewhat less interest are 26 minutes worth of Deleted Scenes which are pleasant and interesting, but most of which Irving was wise to cut out of the feature. Four Short Films, running a total of about 51 minutes, is more of the same, including 28 minutes worth of Bittner's home movies.

A Music Video pays tribute to several of the main birds, in footage apparently shot with a standard camcorder. A theatrical trailer is complete with narration and next.

Parting Thoughts

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill isn't just for bird lovers and ornithologists, any more than March of the Penguins. Indeed, moviegoers who enjoyed that film will almost certainly find themselves equally enchanted by Judy Irving's film, a true story much closer to home.

Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.

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