Connecticut College Magazine · Fall 2003

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Shooting on the Fly

Shooting on the Fly
Judith J. Irving ´68

Judy Irving ’68 interrupts herself with a muffled “ow”: a parrot has just dug its claws into her lap. “This one is Phoenix,” she says. “She came back to life after crashing into a window.”


Rescued from the urban wilds of San Francisco, Phoenix is one of four parrots that live with Judy. Their combined twitters, squawks and screeches make a fitting backdrop to Irving’s status report on “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill,” her documentary film and four-year labor of love. Irving has immersed herself in this film, and not just with regard to her feathered housemates. She also bought a small “fixer-upper” on Telegraph Hill abutting the place where Mark Bittner, a subject of the film, fed the flock of approximately 85 wild parrots.

When CC: last connected with Irving (“Back to Nature: Parrots in the City and Other Wild Tales,” Fall 2000), her film had already grown from a half-hour children’s fable into a full-length feature. “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill” made its premiere in August at the ArcLight Cinema on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, under the aegis of the International Documentary Association. This premiere qualifies the documentary for Academy Award consideration.

Describing what she’s been going through to create a wildlife documentary, Irving refutes any glamorized notion of filmmaking. Capturing good flying shots was a challenge, she explains, because “parrots are fast and nutty; you never know where they’re gonna go.” Sometimes they even seemed to taunt her: “I’d wait the entire day, and they’d never fly by. But as soon as I’d pack up,” she laughs, “they’d fly overhead and do this beautiful pirouette.” Other times they rewarded her patience: one day the flock waited till just before sundown before giving her a beautifully lit, slow-motion shot. But, while she loved the shooting, she didn’t really start to build the film until she was in the editing room. “You’ve got to work with what you have,” she explains, “but that’s not a bad thing. Your limitations help you shape the story.”

Though not particularly political during the ’60s, Irving cites Connecticut College’s ethical values as a key influence on her filmmaking. She enrolled in the film program at Stanford University knowing she would make films about issues that mattered. The Emmy award-winning documentary “Dark Circle,” for example, which she co-created, was an intense study of the human impact of the nuclear age. She maintains that activist philosophy today but sees more recent films as less “overtly political.” Reflecting on what comes next, she talks about “The Wild Parrots” as the first in a series titled “Only in San Francisco,” exploring how people interact with the city’s environment. She also envisions a film profiling San Francisco’s South End Rowing Club, whose “nutcase” members, herself included, swim year-round in San Francisco Bay.

Irving’s films have earned numerous awards and honors, including two Emmys and a Grand Prize for nonfiction at the Sundance Film Festival. But she doesn’t mention those when asked to describe her yardstick of success. Instead she talks about connecting with her audiences: saying something that will touch and change them. She recalls a screening of her 20-minute thesis film on health care in Alaskan bush villages to an audience of hardened Washington bureaucrats. Afterwards, one of them came up to her with these words of praise: “Your film has the beat of life.” It’s a compliment, and a feeling of achievement, she’s never forgotten.


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