‘The Messenger’: Hot Docs Review

The Messenger Still - H 2015
Courtesy of GAT Productions

The Messenger Still - H 2015

Superb nature footage and straightforward reportage make for a solid advocacy doc.

Efforts around the globe to save endangered songbirds are the subject of a Canadian documentary

Awe and hard science 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. The Canadian doc, which screened at Hot Docs, is likely to travel the world too, alighting on the schedules of festivals and pedigreed TV outlets.

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. She’s 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.

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Addressing an issue that’s the focus of the recently released Emptying the Skies — which is based on a New Yorker article by Jonathan Franzen — The Messenger zeros in on the poaching in Southern Europe of migratory songbirds, specifically the ortolan bunting, 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. One hunter speaks openly to the filmmaker about his passion for luring, snaring and dining on the birds. There are plenty of disquieting moments in the movie, but a vintage clip of a gourmand savoring one of the tiny ortolans — the tradition is to eat them whole — is its most shocking image.

The topics Rynard covers are as far-ranging as Mao Tse-tung’s disastrous campaign against tree sparrows and a young German DJ’s incorporation of birdsong in his techno compositions. But their interconnectedness is never in doubt, and the transitions are seamless thanks to scene-setting landscape footage, evocative sound design by Phil Strong, Jason Milligan and Dominique Kerboeuf, and the fluid editing of Eamonn O’Connor.

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.

Production company: SongbirdSOS Prods.
Director: Su Rynard
Screenwriters: Su Rynard, Sally Blake
Producers: Joanne Jackson, Sally Blake, Martin de la Fouchardière, Diane Woods, Su Rynard
Directors of photography: Daniel Grant, Amar Arhab
Editor: Eamonn O’Connor
Composer: Phil Strong
Sound: Phil Strong, Jason Milligan, Dominique Kerboeuf

No rating, 90 minutes