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Film Review: Lovely “Bird Island” Showcases a Haven of Gentle Souls

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | September 24th, 2020

Film poster: “Bird Island”

Bird Island (“L’Île aux oiseaux”) (Sergio Da Costa/Maya Kosa, 2019) 3½ out of 4 stars.

Though classified as a work of nonfiction, Bird Island (or “L’Île aux oiseaux”), from Swiss directors Sergio Da Costa and Maya Kosa (Rio Corgo), immediately strikes the viewer as anything but that, its scenes seemingly staged and the 4:3 aspect ratio, grain and slightly faded color from the 16mm film on which it was shot lending a period feel to the affair. And then there’s the voiceover, spoken by protagonist Antonin Ivanidze, a young man just out of hospital care, still suffering from chronic fatigue, which further blurs the hybridity between fiction and documentary. As part of his recovery, Antonin has been sent to a bird sanctuary on the outskirts of Geneva, adjacent to the airport, where a lonely crew of similar exiles makes peace with their lot in life while caring for their avian charges. In just over an hour, the movie casts its odd spell of cinematic mystery, never quiet resolving into a clearly articulated statement of intent, yet all the stronger for it.

It’s the procedural nature of the quotidian activities that fascinates, initially, Antonin learning from his older mentor Paul how to maintain the rat and mouse population that makes up the diet for many of the birds. We start with fruit and maggots, however, which the film opens with as the hand of an otherwise unseen person places them amongst the trees and stumps of the facility. From there we enter the rodent area, and then gradually meet our cast of characters. Beyond Paul, they include: Sandrine, a young woman who, Antonin tells us, knows every single bird in the place and is adept at carrying the injured of all sizes; Emilie, the veterinarian, whose calm demeanor helps relax those on whom she operates; and Iwan, another grizzled old-timer like Paul. Together, they form an intriguing group, quiet in their ways yet absorbing in behavior.

l-r: Antonin and Paul in BIRD ISLAND ©Close Up Films

The story builds slowly, nothing much happening beyond the day-to-day ins and outs, everyone’s virtually unchanging clothes plunging us into a nearly timeless progression of small details. But that is a superficial impression, which we realize, almost with a shock, when things do change, whether it be the escape of rats who then kill some of the smaller birds, the evolution of an injured owl into a predator ready for re-release, Antonin’s emotional breakdown, or the lingering gazes Emilie begins to cast Antonin’s way. Even in this nearly forgotten haven, small dramatic stakes loom large.

At the end, what remains is the delight of the unknown. What have we just watched? How much did the filmmakers alter the universe for their purposes? This is clearly a real place, filled with people going about their skilled business, undeterred by the presence of the camera, even if that camera is often so well-placed as to force the issue of director/subject cooperation. But what, ultimately, does it matter? The gentle story holds our attention, the riddle of its construction a large part of its appeal. Birds may be the ostensible order of business, but its the humanity at the heart of the narrative that moves us the most.

Still image from BIRD ISLAND ©Close Up Films

[Starting on September 24, Bird Island streams on MUBI USA for 30 days.]

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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