Hard science and awe share center stage in The Messenger, a wide-ranging study of songbirds’ dwindling numbers and the people who are working to protect them. Traveling the world to spotlight challenges and solutions, filmmaker Su Rynard never loses sight of the winged tunesters’ sheer beauty, or their emotional and symbolic pull as perceived intermediaries between the earthly and spiritual.
Rynard’s film posits that songbirds, which account for half the planet’s birds, are, collectively, the canary in the coal mine of the planetary ecosystem: Their decline is a signal of conditions that will affect us all. The director visits with ornithologists, biologists and ecologists who study migratory patterns, track populations and pinpoint growing threats: light and noise pollution, habitat destruction, climate change, the blanket use of insecticides, and – news that some cat people might not want to hear – species-devastating predation by outdoor domestic felines.
Rynard makes a point, too, of showing how activism and increased awareness have led to policies and practices that benefit the delicate creatures. In Toronto, a relatively easy fix on high-rises and other buildings has significantly reduced casualties from window collisions. Rynard is in Manhattan on a night when powerful light beams memorialize the victims of 9/11, and follows avian experts as they restlessly monitor birds’ reaction, ordering the lights cut the moment confusion threatens to turn deadly.
The topics Rynard covers are far-ranging, from Mao Tse-tung’s disastrous campaign against tree sparrows to a young German DJ’s incorporation of birdsong in his techno compositions. Zeroing in on the poaching of migratory songbirds in Southern Europe for their gastronomic value, Rynard captures a confrontation between volunteer members of the Committee Against Bird Slaughter and one of the self-described ‘crazy peasants’ who staunchly defend their right to hunt ortolans.
Bolstering the doc’s central argument, that a world without songbirds would be a greatly diminished one, are the loving images of warblers, grosbeaks and their cousins. Cinematographers Daniel Grant and Amar Arhab showcase individuals at rest, in super-macro shots, as well as in flight. The doc’s stunning slo-mo footage of midair locomotion emphasizes these messengers’ grace and mystery.
– Hollywood Reporter, Sheri Linden
Stay for a Q& A session after the premiere screening on Friday, March 18th