Whatever fills the bill
Ghost Bird, flighty documentary, not rated, The Screen, 2.5 chiles
IIn the town of Brinkley, Arkansas, a Wal-Mart garment factory sits empty. Known as “Lick Skillet” during cotton-belt railroad expansion in the mid 1800s, this small community located along the Mississippi Flyway bird-migration route is a popular destination for out-of-town duck hunters.
Unfortunately, duck season is limited to a few months a year, and there are few jobs in the area. People in Brinkley will work for dirt now, according to a reporter for the Brinkley Argus newspaper, but “people in other places will work for much less dirt.”
The bleak economic forecast in Brinkley seemed endless, until one day in April 2004, when University of Arkansas at Little Rock professor M. David Luneau Jr. captured a few seconds of blurry video while kayaking in the nearby Cache River National Wildlife Refuge. His alleged documentation on that video of the Campephilus principalis, aka the ivorybilled woodpecker — long considered extinct — brought a taste of prosperity to a town in desperate need of it, thanks in large part to growing public interest in bird-watching and a media blitz that drew international attention. But the video — and unsubstantiated word-of-mouth accounts of additional ivory-billed-woodpecker sightings — also disturbed a nest of scientists, skeptics, bird-guide illustrators, and conservationists, many of whom are still embroiled in a heated debate (sometimes referred to as “Peckergate”) over the continued existence of what has been called the “Lord God Bird.”
In this 2009 documentary, directed by Scott Crocker with cinematography by Damir Frkovic, townspeople and scientists ponder the veracity of the sightings near Brinkley, with the former holding out hope that solid evidence will surface, yielding an opportunity to cash in on the discovery.
After Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology director John Fitzpatrick’s enthusiastic announcement at the 2005 conference of the American Ornithologists’ Union that the ivory-billed woodpecker was pecking away east of Little Rock, Brinkley’s chamber of commerce and businessminded residents began formulating a bird-based blueprint for a new local economy. Swamp tours were planned for the media and tourists; ivory-billed hamburgers and salads began popping up at local restaurants; a woodpecker-themed gift shop opened; the ivory-billed haircut became a fixture at Penny’s Hair Care; and T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Got Pecker? We Do!” were hot-ticket items.
Through interviews with bird experts and Brinkley residents, the filmmakers thoroughly explore the ivory-billed woodpecker’s path to extinction. A focus on the history of the Singer Sewing Machine Company and the Chicago Mill and Lumber Company in areas surrounding Brinkley helps explain the bird’s dwindling habitat, which, by the early 1940s, supported only five confirmed ivory-billed woodpeckers. By 1986, one conservationist explains, a hundred square miles of Arkansas woodlands where the bird made its home had been replaced by treeless soybean fields. In the film’s most telling scene, ornithological experts reveal how scientists’ collection of ivorybilled-woodpecker specimens accelerated the bird’s demise.
For all of the accountability offered up regarding the species’ extinction, Ghost Bird avoids making enemies out of those responsible. If there are bad guys here, they’re the academics who declared the ivory-billed woodpecker no longer extinct without solid proof. In light of Cornell University’s shaky findings (the school declined interview requests by the filmmakers and suspended its search for the bird in Arkansas in 2009), the federal government funneled millions of dollars earmarked for the protection of species actually known to be on the brink of extinction into an effort to revitalize the ivory-billed woodpecker population and preserve what was left of its habitat.
When academic voices expressing doubts regarding the bird’s return become louder, the film takes flight — although it doesn’t really know in which direction to flap its wings. Interview segments flit abruptly from expert to expert between snippets of archival footage as it becomes clear that an avian-resurrection flimflam may be in the breeze. For those with little to no interest in the politics of wildlife conservation or the hobby of bird-watching, this is when Ghost Bird loses its mojo. The dry science presented here eventually strips the film of its emotional weight, and the human aspect of the story — the people of Brinkley betting on the existence of a species their fellow men helped destroy — suffers greatly.
Add to this misfortune a poorly developed political undercurrent that unsuccessfully grasps at humor (Donald Rumsfeld’s famous “There are things we don’t know we don’t know” speech about weapons of mass destruction makes an appearance, but it bombs, so to speak), and Ghost Bird devolves into cumbersome partisan rhetoric about something much larger than the film’s intended subject. This doesn’t last long, but the story never fully recovers from the distraction.
Ghost Bird sports a hip soundtrack (presumably meant to broaden its generational appeal) that runs the gamut from the esoteric to some of the most college-campus-and nonprofit-radio-friendly music known to man. An original score by San Francisco-based “avant cellist” Zoë Keating (she has collaborated with Rasputina and The Dresden Dolls’ Amanda Palmer) sets the somber moods, while a careful selection of tunes by The Black Keys, White Stripes, Sonny Terry, Pixies, and composer David Lang punctuates the film’s themes and settings nicely.
The filmmakers adequately capture the buzz and fallout surrounding the alleged discovery of something many people believed would never be seen in living, breathing form again. Unlike Bigfoot and the chupacabra — whose researchers have yet to present irrefutable evidence of — the ivory-billed woodpecker’s history is undeniable. There are drawers full of their cadavers at universities and research facilities across the nation. To avid birders, and to the townspeople of Brinkley, the bird’s return represents something far beyond myth. It’s the embodiment of winged hope, a symbol of simpler, more prosperous times. Unfortunately, what seems more important to Crocker is the mining of scientific data for certainties. And in Ghost Bird, at least, the story surrounding the truth is infinitely more compelling than the truth itself.
Where’s Woody? M. David Luneau Jr. searching for the ivory-billed-woodpecker in Arkansas