In May 2005, the news broke that the extinct ivory-billed woodpecker had been rediscovered in an Arkansas swamp. Or had it? As has long been the case with Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster, video footage and eyewitness sightings were inconclusive. But everyone from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to the citizens of the nearby town of Brinkley had high hopes. Some were even obsessed, like the cameraman who spent 14 months trying to shoot HD video of the bird, only to emerge from the woods empty-handed to find his wife had left him.
Scott Crocker happened to meet this unlucky man at the Jackson Hole Film Festival, and (with a good deal more level-headedness) set off to make a documentary, Ghost Bird, about the phenomenon, the people and, as it’s also known, the Lord God bird. Crocker had made a couple of previous films— Boneshop of the Heart, a 1990 profile of five outsider artists in the Deep South, and the 1994 screwball comedy The Understudy—so he wasn’t going off half-cocked.
"I was trained [as a visual anthropologist] to be skeptical not only about anthropology but the documentary form itself," Crocker relates on the phone from his East Bay home. "I’ve long had an interest in identity, memory, and what I call the narrative impulse, which is our desire to connect dots and fill in blanks, which serves us well when we don’t have an interest in the outcome. But when there’s something we’re looking for, we begin to see patterns when there aren’t any there—in this case, the white trailing edges on wings. This bird did exist, unlike Bigfoot, but you only ever believed you saw it if you didn’t see the head or didn’t see the tail."
One of the marvelous things about the trailer (go to www.ghostbirdmovie.com) is that Crocker’s interviews with the locals are plenty amusing while avoiding Coen Bros.-style condescension. Sure, it’s just a trailer, but one gets a sense of authentic characters that are in on the joke, but aren’t the joke.
"It’s something I’m really aware of and have never been comfortable with when it shows its head in other films," Crocker concurs. "It’s important to me to have these people reveal themselves honestly in a way they’d approve of. We have empathy with them, and if we’re ever laughing it’s with them, not at them. The bird is such a tragic loss that we even empathize with those who wanted it to be there most—scientists and ornithologists and birders. We don’t come away having somehow elevated ourselves above them and their effort. It’s a shared loss, and there’s something even noble about having wanted it to be there even if it wasn’t."
It’s that time of the year when filmmakers are racing to make Sundance’s deadline and hoping to make the festival cut. Crocker might have a slight advantage with music by the Pixies, White Stripes, Black Keys, Hazmat Modine, Sonny Terry, and an original score by local cellist Zoë Keating. Bird’s the word.
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