TheWild Parrots of Telegraph Hill

 

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill is the true story of a Bohemian St. Francis and his remarkable relationship with a flock of wild green-and-red parrots. Mark Bittner, a homeless street musician in San Francisco, falls in with the flock as he searches for meaning in his life, unaware that the wild parrots will bring him everything he needs. The film celebrates urban wildness, Bohemian and avian, and links the parrots' antics to human behavior. A surprise ending ties the themes together and completes Mark's search for meaning.

Although he is no scientist and this is not a "nature film," Mark becomes something of an expert himself as he consults local birders, and as he feeds, names, studies, and protects the cherry-headed conures — escaped pets who have begun to breed in the wilds of the city.

 

Parrot "stars" include Connor, a lonely blue-crowned conure, ostracized by the cherry heads; Picasso and Sophie, an affectionate pair who love to cuddle; Pushkin, a single father who raises three babies on his own; and Mingus, who bebops to Mark's guitar music.

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill is a feature-length film of 83 minutes. Shot in 16mm color, it was blown up to 35mm for its 2005 theatrical release, was broadcast on national public television in 2007, and is now out on DVD.

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill is a production of Pelican Media, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization, and is directed by Judy Irving, a Sundance-and-Emmy-Award-winning filmmaker whose credits include Dark Circle, a nonfiction feature about the nuclear industry, and 19 Arrests, No Convictions, about a man who “escapes” from Alcatraz by swimming in the Bay.  Irving received a Masters in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University and is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. Her movies are distributed internationally to theaters, television, and non-theatrical outlets.

The film's festival launch in 2004 coincided with the Harmony/Random House publication of Mark Bittner's 300-page nonfiction memoir, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill—A Love Story...With Wings. 

 

Wild Parrots Distribution

Pelican Media and Random House coordinated publicity for the two projects, mentioning the book in the film credits and the film on the book jacket. Film festival screenings in San Francisco, Ashland, and elsewhere engendered word-of-mouth and reviews, which helped secure theatrical distribution. In particular, the sold-out screenings at the San Francisco International Film Festival led to offers from two theatrical distributors, and in 2005, Shadow Distribution released the film to theatres in 35mm.

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill played in over 500 cities nationwide, and is still among the top 50 highest-grossing theatrical documentaries. It is the 4th most popular documentary about animals, after March of the Penguins, Winged Migration, and Grizzly Man. Critical response has been overwhelmingly positive. The film has also played internationally on television—Latin America, Canada, Sweden, Thailand, even Al-Jazeera—and in theatres in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. In 2006 New Video/Docurama released the DVD, which contains the 83-minute feature film plus 90 minutes of Bonus Features.

In 2007 Wild Parrots was broadcast on the national public television series, Independent Lens, and received its highest ratings. In October, 2008, a double-disc Collector's Edition DVD was released by New Video. Also, since 2008 the film became available on iTunes and Netflix, in addition to Pelican Media's web store, Amazon, Blockbuster, etc. Word-of-mouth has helped the film tremendously throughout its distribution, as more and more people discover its timeless story and tell their friends.

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As fog rolls through the Golden Gate, jewel green birds pluck cherry blossoms from trees in a downtown park, delighting youngsters who play in the “snow” beneath the branches. Bright red heads emerge from the foliage as the birds chatter to each other and take flight, winging along the waterfront to the steep eastern slope of Telegraph Hill. As awestruck tourists watch, Mark Bittner holds up a palm full of sunflower seeds to the eager, noisy birds. Wearing Levis and a ponytail, surrounded by the jostling flock, Bittner is a Bohemian Saint Francis.

 

“How many of these do you own?” asks an onlooker. Mark replies, “I don't own any of them. They're wild.” The onlooker is undaunted: “Does the city pay you to do this?” “Do you have names for them?” Like this man, most people who encounter Mark and the flock find it hard to believe that exotic parrots can thrive in the wild in an American city.

Soon, as Mark points out their differences, we begin to distinguish the individual birds and their personalities. There's Connor, the only blue-crowned conure amidst the flock of cherry-heads—a regal lonely bird without a mate, and Mark's alter ego; Olive and Pushkin, an unlikely combination of two different species who paired up to produce hybrid babies, a new San Francisco breed; Picasso and Sophie, who preen each other and snuggle on the branches; Mingus, a wild bird who lives under the refrigerator in Mark's tiny studio and refuses to go outside; and, finally, Tupelo, the first sick bird Mark took in, capture his heart, and then die, teaching Mark lessons about human-animal consciousness.

The film flashes back to show who Mark is, how he came to North Beach drawn by the music scene, cheap artists' housing, and Beat poetry, and, eventually, how became involved with the parrots. After a brief stint as a street singer, twists of fate led him through a period of homelessness (his “Dharma Bum” period) to a series of caretaker jobs, setting the stage for his meeting the wild birds.

This is no one-dimensional “saint,” but a lonely, penniless, and idealistic soul who was ready to abandon urban life for the country until he read poet Gary Snyder's admonition to seek out nature in the city. With no money but all the time in the world, Mark set out a bowl of birdseed for the robins and scrub jays he saw from his fire escape, never expecting that wild parrots would show up to transform his life.

The film is about Mark and his deepening relationship with the wild flock. It is about trust, and how one becomes trustworthy.

It is about Mark's longing for connection, for creative work and a meaningful life, and how these can arrive in unexpected packages—like a flock of squabbling, acrobatic, funny parrots. The subtext of the film is Mark's relationship to other people, especially the woman he's searching for. This theme is inferred through his comments about the love lives of parrots such as Picasso and Sophie, an affectionate couple who “met” when they fell ill and Mark cared for them inside his cottage. The off-screen filmmaker asks the occasional devil's-advocate question: “Why won't you get a job?” “Why don't you cut your hair?” and “What's the difference between you and the pigeon lady?”

In the final act of the film, a construction permit is tacked to the outside of Mark's cottage. He begins to pack his few belongings and figure out what to do about the birds, especially the sick ones he's caring for indoors who will need homes when he leaves. His departure ends his six-year relationship with the parrots he has come to know as friends. As Mark moves out and his cottage is razed, another chapter of San Francisco history, another touch of its culture, is lost. A surprise ending ties the themes together and ends Mark's search. As the credits roll we see the city from the point-of-view of the flock, flying high above Telegraph Hill and the San Francisco waterfront, wild and free as a bird.

The Wild Parrots Story

The film includes interviews with Mark's Telegraph Hill neighbors; locals who speculate about the origins of San Francisco's two parrot flocks; Mark's sympathetic landlords who let him “squat” in the cottage rent-free for three years; the head of the city's Animal Control and Welfare Commission, which must decide the official fate of the flock after Mark leaves; the Curator of Birds at the San Francisco Zoo; and others, all of whom build up a picture of Mark's and the parrots' near-legendary status in the community. Clips from front-page news stories and the city's “Wild Parrot Day” Proclamation show how the story swept the international media just before Mark had to move.   San Francisco's second parrot flock—canary-winged parakeets—play a cameo role in this “wild in the city” portrait.

Copyright © 2020 by Pelican Media

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