Oct 12, 2014

Judy Irving's "Pelican Dreams"

Judy Irving and "Gigi" in the filmmaker's new documentary Pelican Dreams, opening in New York and LA on November 7th. (Photo courtesy of Shadow Distribution.)
About ten years ago, on a visit to a remote wildlife reserve in Mexico, I had my first glimpse of brown pelicans diving into the sea. My husband and I looked on as a flock of these large-winged birds seemed to shape-shift in mid-air, contracting their wings and hurling themselves downward, slicing through the surface of the water in order to catch the fish they had apparently spied from above. In Judy Irving’s Pelican Dreams, in a spectacular sequence that captures the efforts of young brown pelicans diving beside their elders, viewers can see one of these wonders of nature.

Irving had begun filming the birds over a decade ago and abandoned the project, but when a brown pelican landed on the Golden Gate Bridge recently, she recalled her childhood love of the birds and the 16 mm. footage she had shot of them. Brown pelicans breed on California’s Channel Islands, and that unlucky young bird, dubbed “Gigi” by Irving, was underweight, and had to be taken to a wildlife rehabilitation center. Irving followed her there. Throughout Pelican Dreams, the filmmaker speaks with about a dozen pelican caretakers, mostly in the San Francisco Bay area, who nurse the birds professionally, and who heal them in their backyards. All the pelicans are released back into the wild if they recover.

Irving, best-known for The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (2003), narrates Pelican Dreams in her role as tour guide through breeding grounds, backyard pens, the rehabilitation center, wild animal clinics, and the shorelines of the Pacific Flyway. While Irving too often anthropomorphizes the pelicans, she nevertheless provides a great deal of information about them in a skillful, yet congenial style which is a welcome relief from National Geographic films. In fact, many sequences, like the one of pelicans diving into the sea, is almost entirely visual, Irving instinctually limiting her narration to a few brief comments. Some scenes in Pelican Dreams are composed from “found footage,” given to the filmmaker by others, such as the sequence where pelicans are seen caught in fishing nets. Irving’s documentary reflects the editing together of six different formats, including 16 mm., a technical feat even in this digital age.

Pelican Dreams is as much personal essay as it is a nature documentary, the filmmaker recalling that as a girl she thought of the pelicans as “flying dinosaurs.” That is not an inaccurate description: Pelicans have been on earth 25 million years longer than we have. Irving’s unabashed affection for them and for Gigi, as well as her apparent talent for establishing intimacy with her subjects, pelicans and the people who care for them, is what sustains this delightful documentary. While the filmmaker includes the effects of oil spills and climate change on these remarkable birds, she brings to her work that awe of nature and of life itself which is not, ironically, often articulated in other nature documentaries.

Pelican Dreams opens on November 7th in New York and LA. It is appropriate for children, although the under 5 year-olds may be disturbed by brief passages in which Irving talks about or photographs injured and dying birds.