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Filmmaker Judy Irving presents 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. Although not a scientist, Mark's expertise grows as he becomes a guardian and caretaker of the cherry-headed conures—escaped pets who have begun to breed in the wilds of the city. His touching dedication to these birds moves Mark toward a career for the first time in decades—and brings a most unexpected result.
 

 The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill

Even when it didn’t make logical sense, birds kept showing up in my movies–geese in a film about nuclear power and weapons (Dark Circle), sandhill cranes in Out of the Way Café–and I finally admitted to myself that, cool or not, I really did love birds, and hip or not, I really was by nature a documentary (not fiction) filmmaker. Around the time of that midlife reckoning two friends independently of each other told me I should “make a movie about the guy who feeds the parrots on Telegraph Hill.”

Three years earlier I’d read about Mark Bittner in Bird Talk, a pet-parrot magazine (I had a cockatiel, Sweetheart). But since Mark wrote that he’d soon have to move, I figured he’d be gone before I could shoot the first roll of film. He was still there, though, and I finally gave him a call.

At first glance, Mark didn’t seem like a natural movie star. The green-and-red parrots flying around him were exotic and feisty, but Mark himself was, well…a quiet, long-haired hippie recluse living in a shack. I also wondered how much story there was in a guy feeding birds. He called them by name, though. Fanny even landed on his head and leaned down to chew on his glasses. Where had these parrots come from? Wasn’t San Francisco too cold for tropical birds?

The initial story seemed to point toward a children’s fable. What if some kids came upon this bearded St. Francis character, handing out sunflower seeds to wild parrots, and he somehow managed to get the parrots to take seeds from the kids’ hands, too?

I realize now that I was trying to re-create an experience from my childhood. When I was eight years old my grandfather taught me how to feed wild chickadees. I never forgot the almost weightless touch of those tiny reptilian feet on my open palm, the fluffy black-and-white feathers on their round little bodies, and the intense look in their eyes. Time stopped. It was my first direct contact with wild animals.

But the children’s fable didn’t work. They say you should never make a movie with wild animals or (wild) children. Plus, I was trying fiction again, despite my documentary inclinations. Although Mark did entice Miles to take seeds from three children, the acting was flat and the kids kept looking at the camera. But as I listened to Mark describe Olive and Pushkin, Connor, Mingus, Picasso and Sophie, I saw that he was a great storyteller.

The parrots’ jealousies, divorces, single parenting, illnesses and tragedies mirrored human society. The birds had a sense of humor, too, “as if they were concealing the punchline to some joke,” said Mark. And he himself was a “dharma bum”–a homeless seeker of truth (Gary Snyder)–as opposed to just a regular bum. Mark had been on a spiritual path for years, ever since he’d given up a rock-star fantasy. The parrots, and particularly the death of one bird called Tupelo, were teaching him truths about consciousness that he couldn’t get from a book. The story had drama, as well: Mark would soon lose his caretaking gig and have to leave Telegraph Hill. He’d never had a regular job in his twenty-five years in San Francisco, and had never paid rent either. He had no money, but all the time in the world. How did he get away with that?

This film wouldn’t be a nature film. It wouldn’t be just a portrait of a person, either. Mark’s unlikely connection to wild animals in one of the densest, most expensive cities in the world was a unique tale, bent in unusual directions because of Mark’s non-careerist path and by the avian characters who unexpectedly flew into his life.

I started shooting just in time for a dramatic story to unfold: the final year of Mark’s life with the flock. The film had its own built-in beginning, middle, and end, not unlike fiction; it had comedy, drama, silliness and depth. It also changed my life. I had no idea when I started this film that it would become my best work. Although I’m not a New Age person, I have to admit that “parrot angels” kept turning up to fly the film along to completion. It has something to do with admitting who I am, and following my own path. I didn’t really believe this before, but I think it’s the way the universe must work.