Film Review: Pelican Dreams
Directed by Judy Irving
In 2005, in The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, filmmaker Judy Irving detailed the odd relationship between a group of feral parrots and an unemployed musician living in a San Francisco neighborhood. In her latest, she again follows a unique and evocative bird, only this time she chronicles its broader, and more fragile, relationship with its environment and with people. The film starts with video footage of Gigi, a young brown pelican who in 2008 held up traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge, eventually being taken away by the cops. The footage went viral and Gigi became something of a YouTube celebrity. Irving follows the bird, and then tracks its probable journey. This becomes the framing device for a deeper exploration of the pelican—an ancient bird that almost went extinct in the 1960s, as well as a remarkably smart creature that has more traits in common with dogs than it does with other birds.
Irving narrates the film, but along the way she also gets insights from scientists, fishermen, and others who’ve spent lives interacting with pelicans. It’s an engaging subject, but it would also be easy for it to become too dry and pedantic. Luckily, Irving has good cinematic instincts: She’s clearly not a fan of talking heads, and her film is immersed in its environment and in the birds’ life. As Irving’s camera follows the pelicans’ journey, with the voice of Irving and others telling us their thoughts about the birds, the film takes on a ruminative, melancholy quality. Still, Irving is not a doom-and-gloom filmmaker. Despite the fragility of the pelicans’ world, Pelican Dreams offers a fundamentally optimistic view of this bird and its future—wary and clear-eyed, but ultimately hopeful.