Docurama // 2003 // 83 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Judge Kristin Munson (Retired) // November 20th, 2008
A love story with wings.
Birds are like a gateway drug. You never know that you're a bird person until you meet the right one and, I'm guessing for a lot of people, that bird will be Mingus. The minute the little crippled conure starts to bob along to a blues song, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill might as well hang up a warning for your heart: Abandon all hope, ye who enter.
Once upon a time, nobody knows quite how or when, a small flock of Christmas-colored conures appeared in the trees of Telegraph Hill. Whether they'd flown off course from South America or were just someone's pets was anybody's guess, but the exotic parrots thrived and multiplied and came to call California home.
Once upon a time, at an earlier time but in much the same way, a wandering musician came to San Francisco in search of opportunity. He never found what he was looking for, but he did find the parrots and over many months and countless bags of bird seed, he came to call them his friends.
Although The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill is all true, the story of Mark Bittner and his flock of avian friends has more than a hint of fairy tale to it. A certain magical quality that makes you want to run outside and befriend backyard critters, in spite of your advanced age and the high likelihood of squirrel bites.
Those first 10 minutes where Mingus gets his groove on prove the parrots are more than red and green clowns who cackle like helium-riddled ravens and perform gymnastics on the power lines. Not only do they have as much intelligence and personality as people, they have much better rhythm. The flock's other members include self-mutilating and single-father parrots and Connor, the lone blue crown in sea of cherry-heads, who adopts the flock's other outcasts and misfits.
Despite the film's G rating, director Judy Irving doesn't let things get too cutesy, unveiling bits of Bittner's personal story between his stories and observations about the birds: two sets of refugees changed by knowing each other. Someone who was jobless and homeless settles down and has his avian hobby become a career (Bittner went on to write a book about his experiences called, oddly enough, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill), and the birds' public and personal interactions with Mark endear them to residents and tourists and generate enough scientific data to keep them from being destroyed as an invasive species.
While it seems a little early for a double dip, since the original edition came to DVD just three years ago, the little nature indie that could picked up a head of steam when it hit store shelves and aired on PBS last year as part of the Independent Lens series. Where the original release (and first disc of this set) had some nice extras and updates from five years after filming stopped, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill: Special Two-Disc Collector's Edition comes with a second disc with more up-to-date info on the parrots and the results of their becoming minor celebrities.
Over half the new stuff on Disc Two is directly related to the documentary, including new interviews, outtakes left over from the first release, updates on Mark and Judy, a look at the newly-founded wild parrot rescue group, testimony on a city ordinance banning bird feeding, and a look at the cultural impact the birds have had in San Francisco. Unlike the surf videos I've reviewed, which pick a niche and stick to it, there's something for every possible demographic on this new edition of Telegraph Hill. Fans of low-budget documentaries get Judy Irving's more recent efforts "Christmas at the Bait Shop," another bird-themed outing, and "19 Arrests, No Convictions," about another colorful Californian. Bird lovers get lots of wild parrot footage, plus a music video, and conservation types several featurettes on urban parrot preservation and the wild bird trade. These last two are the only extras that aren't family friendly viewing, showing animals yanked from their nests and convention centers crammed with cages of terrified birds.
For once, a special edition actually looks special, the discs coming in a glossy but slender hardcover with material reprinted from Bittner's book. The actual excerpts are disappointing -- mostly snippets of reflection that appear in the doc itself -- but the photos of the birds and feathered backgrounds make for a pretty overall package. Because of the movie's 16 mm origins, neither the 5.1 nor 2.0 stereo tracks offers much oomph, the full frame transfer looking slightly fuzzy, but the vibrant nature of the parrots shines through.
The film's opening sequence comes across as completely staged, with a random stranger stopping to hassle Bittner as he feeds the birds and ask questions that conveniently lay out all the movie's facts. Luckily, Mingus swoops to the rescue in the next scene, and the rest of the documentary is actual documentation.
Mark Bittner is not always the most empathetic figure, especially after finding out that his Pied Piper existence, from house to seed to camera, is financed entirely by other people. There's an uncomfortable interview where the people who bought Bittner's current home come up with polite excuses why they're evicting him, trying not to look like monsters for not wanting a bearded bird-man squatting in their guest house. He also tends to over-anthropomorphize the birds to the point where even an animal lover like me was rolling my eyes.
Deep down, even the most raging of cynics has a glimmer of the sentimental about them, and The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill has the uncanny ability to find that shiny speck and give it a good, hard jab. With almost two hours of new extras and the deluxe packaging, the disc more than lives up to its Collector's Edition moniker, but since half of the new stuff is tangential to the actual film, people who love the doc will have to decide whether they want to shell out the extra dough for home movies and city council testimony. It will, however make an excellent gift for the animal-lover in your life.
Not Guilty. Fly my pretties, fly!
Review content copyright © 2008 Kristin Munson; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 83 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Rated G
* Flock Update
* Behind the Scenes
* "Ballad of the Brooklyn Parrots" Music Video
* "Please Don't Feed the Birds"
* Excerpt from The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill" book
* "Christmas at the Bait Shop" Short
* "19 Arrests, No Convictions" Short
* Strictly for Parrots: Parrots Around the World
* "Parrots and Power Poles" Short
* "The Parrot Trade" Short
* Mark and Judy Update
* Parrot Rescue
* Interview with Mark and Judy
* Short Films
* Parrot Music Video
* Mark Bittner's Home Movies
* Original Flock Update
* Deleted Scenes
* Theatrical Trailer
* Official Site
* Pelican Media
* Mark Bittner's Site