Friday, July 31 - Thursday, August 6, 2020
Michael Gitlin's The Birdpeople

The Birdpeople, Michael Gitlin, 2004, 16mm, 61 mins

Watch now.

One of the many disturbing signs of environmental catastrophe to emerge in recent years has been the massive die-off of North American birds: scientists now calculate that the continent’s population has plummeted by nearly 3 billion in only half a century. Amateur ornithologists have long suspected this, as evidenced in Michael Gitlin’s The Birdpeople, a richly digressive essay film on avian-human relations which will be screening free of charge on Light Industry’s Vimeo channel over the next week. “You can’t even believe how few birds there are today,” one bird watcher explains. “Thirty years ago, you’d look at a tree during a good migration day and you wouldn’t know where to look first, there were so many birds. Today if you get one day even approaching that, you feel like, ‘My God, why isn’t this all the time?’ So, enjoy them while you can.”

Along with portraits of Central Park birders like these, captured in fleeting moments not unlike the “good looks” of their own pastime, Gitlin tracks the curious history of the ivory-billed woodpecker, one of birdwatching’s most sought-after sightings. The last confirmed glimpse of the bird, long thought extinct, occurred in 1944, though tantalizing clues to its continued existence have surfaced. The American species was among the largest of its kind, known for its powerful tree-battering and its plaintive call, which 19th-century witnesses compared to the flat honk of a tin trumpet. Gitlin turns his lens on some of the hundreds of ivory-billed specimens held in research centers, collected by naturalists who couldn’t have considered the meaning such physical data might hold for the future, and then examines the work of contemporary scientists who nab birds in nearly-invisible mist nets before gently subjecting them to manual study. This practice seems to mirror the filmmaker’s own: an enigmatic voiceover alludes to “a net that responds to the thing that it’s catching,” suggesting at once the making of a documentary, the act of perception, and the ongoing project of consciousness itself.

This broader philosophical inquiry quietly subtends Gitlin’s various excursions, which he connects via darting, pinhole-like Super-8 footage of warblers and finches, optically printed to evoke extra-human vision. The Birdpeople looks at both birds and people in a way that reframes how we attend to the natural world, and the questions it poses take on a strange new potency in the simultaneous contexts of pandemic and ecological collapse. As Gitlin puts it, in a message meant for the birds, “I watch you the way I used to watch movies. I remember you the way I used to remember movies.”