Last night, the Naro screened The Messenger: Imagine a World Without Songbirds. The documentary details conservation efforts towards the declining population of Earth’s songbirds.
It’s a beautifully made, informative, sobering account of worldwide environmental efforts and the delicate science involved in trying to save these small creatures.
It’s also a somewhat metaphysical meditation on our relationship to birds, to our planet, and on our slowly growing knowledge of our environment. Humans are just now beginning to understand magnetic fields and weather patterns—things that birds have taken for granted for millennia.
The viewer is treated to remarkable images and feats of cinematography. Those slow-motion birds in the trailer appear again and again throughout the documentary, and were filmed by releasing birds into a wind tunnel—something never attempted before. The film includes images both urgent and mesmerizing: hundreds of dead songbirds lined up like tiny bundles, birds swarming like insects in the pillars of light of the World Trade Center memorial, a field at night obscured by darkness but surrounded by the flight calls of hundreds of migratory birds. The emotion at times is almost overwhelming.
Normally, conservation documentaries present one side of an issue: the conservation side. These are films with an agenda. By the end, you know exactly how you’re supposed to feel about what you just saw.
The Messenger is a slightly different animal. It gives you the conservation stuff, the statistics, the sense of urgency about its subject, but when it has the opportunity to do so, the film does its best to show the other side as well.
It is divided into sections, each detailing a different facet of songbird conservation efforts. Since it’s a Canadian production most of the stories have to do with Canadian conservation, but it reaches all the way to Germany, France, and Costa Rica. One segment introduces the practice of trapping petite ortolan buntings in France during their migratory route to Africa—a practice banned but still done. The film follows a group of activists who sneak photos of these caged birds on farms, and one of them speaks passionately about how if this does not end, there won’t be any ortolans left in this region. But instead of stopping there, the next interview is with a man who is one of these trappers himself. He discusses his methods, shows off his delicate cages and clever trapping devices, and explains the tradition: his father taught him, his grandfather taught his father before him, and back through the generations. Tradition, in the face of hard science, is no excuse, but it gives that small chapter the perspective that another film made by another team might not have.
Conservation is often a one-sided business. You have the heroes, the people doing their part to spread the word; and you have the villains, the abusive cattle farmers, the government fat cats, Monsanto. What you don’t see is the people affected—why do they do what they do? Most of them aren’t evil: if there were a cheaper way to be more environmentally friendly, they’d jump on it. What this film does by giving a taste of the other side when it can is to offer perspective on the complicated relationship between conservation and society.
The Naro’s post-film discussion provided an opportunity for audience members to comment on the film, and for special guests to field questions: Dan Cristol, from the College of William & Mar,y whose research deals with avian mercury poisoning, Lisa Barlow, who volunteers with Virginia Beach-based Wildlife Response and rehabilitates pelicans, and area birder Bob Ake. Wildlife Response, the Sierra Club, and PETA also had booths in the lobby.
The takeaway from the discussion, and from the film itself, is that it’s the little things we do that may eventually make a difference. Keep domestic cats indoors, turn lights off at night or draw window shades so that migrating birds aren’t confused, treat windows with decals if birds keep flying into them. According to the film, even the smallest effort to conserve and protect makes a difference. Now that we are beginning to understand things like migration patterns that have existed for millennia, we can work to find ways not to disrupt them.
To learn more, visit the film’s website here.
NEXT AT THE NARO: This month’s Naro events include an Oscar-nominated short films series, with animated shorts screening on Tuesday February 9, and live-action shorts the following Tuesday February 16. Also, the 80th anniversary of the Naro is coming up, so keep an eye out for something special on February 24. #ET