The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill
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This documentary follows the ups-and-downs of a flock of urban parrots in San Francisco and the aging bohemian who befriends, feeds and names them. Along the way, we meet many unforgettable characters and learn just how wondrously similar the human and animal worlds really are.
Quiet patience and an observant eye turn a seemingly unpromising subject into a rich and fascinating movie. The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill captures the life of Mark Bittner, a gentle homeless musician who's befriended a flock of wild parrots in a neighborhood of San Francisco. Following Bittner, the
Filmmaker Judy Irving has created an exemplary documentary simply by paying attention to the details of the world around her subject.
An "engrossing, delightful film" (The Washington Post), The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill is the bonafide sleeper theatrical hit of the year. The film's endearing guide is Mark Bittner, an aging bohemian, but the supporting cast members, a rambunctious flock of urban parrots, are the true stars, and their surprisingly humanlike behavior makes for a wondrous and rare experience. The film follows the ups-and-downs of these wild birds within the green niches of San Francisco as Bittner befriends, feeds, and names the members of the flock. Along the way, we meet many unforgettable characters: among them Connor, the grouchy yet lovable outcast of the flock, crying for a mate but luckless in his pursuits, and "the lovers," Picasso and Sophie, inseparable until Sophie is forced into mourning when Picasso disappears. More than a mere birdwatcher, Bittner finds solace in his immersion with these strikingly beautiful creatures - but how will he cope when he's evicted from his sanctuary and forced to live away from the parrots? Packed with romance, comedy and a surprise ending that "makes you feel like you could fly out of the theater" (San Jose Mercury News), The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill shows just how wondrously similar the human and animal worlds really can be.
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Ned: There's a scene early on where you ask, "Why don't you cut your hair?" Mark says, "I'm not going to cut my hair until I have a girlfriend." So I wondered, "Will there be a scene at the end where he cuts his hair?" Did you know what was going to happen when you recorded that scene?
Judy: I recorded that close to the beginning of the project. I didn't know how things would end up. As I was editing, I knew what I was doing, though. Like in dramatic films, I wanted to have setups and payoffs throughout the movie. That was one of them. I also wanted folks almost to forget it after it happened.
Ned: I was struck by the narrative quality of Parrots. It’s almost like a fiction film. There’s Connor, the outcast. He's like the tough guy who turns out to have a heart of gold, sticking up for the injured birds as their fellow cherry heads attack them. Then he suffers his apparent tragic demise—like the brother in Slumdog Millionaire.
Judy: Connor was the classic outsider. I didn’t make anything up. The cherry heads didn't like him because of his blue head. Discrimination happens even in the bird world.
Ned: Another part of the story arc was where you create this beautiful world, and then it has to end. Mark has to leave. What's going to happen to the birds?
Judy: That all happened while I was filming. Mark was living in the cottage, and the owners had to ask him to move because it was literally sliding down the hill. I knew that might happen when I started filming. I just hoped I’d get enough shot before he had to go. So his moving became part of the story. But in a documentary you can't control those things. There's no script. That's the risk you take. You just hope events will unfold in a way that makes a good story. I much prefer storyline documentaries to standard “talking heads and b-roll” type documentaries
Ned: In the movie you’re not antagonistic exactly, but you keep asking Mark questions like, how come you don't get a job? Gradually, that changes. There’s more to him than you thought.
Judy: When I first met Mark, I wasn't sure he was movie material, frankly. (Laughs.) After awhile I realized he was a great storyteller, with a good voice and screen presence. I needed to ask the questions that the audience would ask.
Ned: The film is not at all what most people expect it to be.
Judy: Right. And because of the title, a lot of guys aren’t interested in watching it. Then their girlfriends or wives drag them to it, and they’re moved. They find out that it's about much more than just parrots. It's about personality, consciousness, and life and death.
Ned: And love.
Judy: (Laughs.) And love.See all Editorial Reviews
- Origins of the Flock
- Urban Legends
- Update: Mingus at the Oasis
- Parrots Music Video
- Mark Bittner's Home Movies
- Flock Updates
- Deleted Scenes
- Theatrical Trailer
- California Quail Bonus Short
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Top customer reviews
The documentary is 83 minutes long and focuses on a flock of feral Cherry-Headed Conures that have made Telegraph Hill (a region of San Francisco, CA) their home. Mark Bittner, a layman and bird lover, takes great interest in studying and learning more about the Cherry Headed Conure flock for his own personal interest. No one else had really taken an interest into learning how these feral/non-native species were surviving let alone thriving in the San Francsico Bay Area. Most naturalists seemed to want to destroy the wild parrots as they were a nonindigenous species to North America.
Mr. Bitter studied the flock on a daily or near daily basis. You can tell he has a real love and devotion for these birds and cares about their well being. He could identify each bird by its individual markings & had given each bird a name. He knew their personalities & quirks, which bird was mating with which bird, where they were nesting and how many babies that were hatched and survived! Mr. Bittner spent so much time around the wild parrots that they would land on him or eat seeds out of his hand. If they were ill or sick he would care for them until they were well enough to return to the flock.
No one knows for sure how the feral Cherry Headed Conures came to habitat Telegraph Hill, but various urban legands are told throughout this documentary as to how the Wild Parrots came to habit Telegraph Hill.
This documentary captures the parrots and their human benefactor in great detail. Mark Bittner is beyond just a quirky guy who happens to love these birds. It also documents his Buddhist/zen view of himself and life and how his relationship with the birds changes his self perception and outlook. In addition to the story about Bittner and the birds, the viewer gets to see a part of San Francisco that you might otherwise miss.
You feel the sadness when Bittner is no longer able to take care of the birds and one of the main bird characters dies shortly after.
If there's a small complaint, the film arguably occasionally suffers from a lack of pacing, but the surprise ending is great.
In case you're wondering about the flock, I can tell you that I was in San Francisco again recently, and the parrots are alive and well. The individual bird characters may be gone, but as Bittner says in the movie much more eloquently than I can here, we're all (birds and people) drops in the river. And the river keeps flowing.