SHOOTING ON THE FLY
Judith J. Irving '68, recipient of the Goodwin-Niering Center Alumni Environmental Achievement Award in 2000, remains chin-deep in parrots and ice water.
Judy Irving interrupts herself with a muffled "ow": a parrot has just dug its claws into her lap. "This one is Phoenix," she stops to explain. "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.
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 an hourlong documentary. Now in the editing stages, it is a full-length feature which she's aiming to convert to 35mm format for theatrical release after the film festivals.
Irving has immersed herself into 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, the parrots' co-star, fed them. There's been one other significant change in her life, a secret not to be revealed till the end of the film.
In 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 till 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 film school 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 entitled Only in San Francisco, exploring other peoples' interactions 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 Grand Prize for non-fiction 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. To illustrate, she recalls a screening of her 20-minute thesis film on health care in Alaskan bush villages. The audience: hardened Washington bureaucrats, one of whom came up to her afterwards 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.