Bird Island (L’Île aux oiseaux, Switzerland 2019)

Emilie and Sandrine treat a swan

This unusual little film, barely an hour long, intrigues though little seems to happen in what passes as a narrative. It is only afterwards, while reflecting on the film, that you realise that it is a carefully considered construction, a hybrid of fiction and documentary that aims to make a number of interesting and important statements. After several festival screenings it is now available on MUBI in the UK. One of the two writer-directors, Sergio Da Costa developed an idea first and then discovered a Swiss documentary project that offered to fully fund a film. Da Costa applied with his partner Maya Kosa and they were awarded funding. Kosa then became as enthusiastic as Da Costa (the pair had worked together on a previous film, Rio Corgo (2015).

Antonin learns how to move the rats and mice when their pens need cleaning

The two filmmakers had discovered an injured bird by the roadside in 2013 and taken it to a bird rehabilitation centre near the airport in Geneva. It was Da Costa who was surprised that the centre didn’t correspond to the stereotype of a sanitised Swiss operation. It seemed more chaotic. Da Costa says he was more sensitised by the place: “I saw its cinematic potential as a disaster film”. (See the interview on MUBI.) What the filmmakers then produced was a fiction which used some of the real workers at the centre plus a non-professional actor playing the central character Antonin. All the actors used their own first names. The cast is actually much smaller than the workforce of the centre, allowing more focus on the characters. Antonin is a young man recovering from cancer treatment and he arrives at the centre as a form of apprentice, learning a job partly as therapy. He is still subject to moments of complete lack of energy and his habit of literally falling asleep at work is a surprise to Paul, the older man who is about to retire after teaching Antonin how to breed mice and rats that will be fed to the captive birds of prey in the centre. As well as Paul, the other featured workers are Sandrine, who generally cares for the birds, Emilie the vet and Iwan who appears to be a handyman of sorts.

The traumatised owl has recovered and is ready for release

There certainly is an air of melancholy about the centre and we see some scenes that the usual audience for TV wildlife programmes might find distressing. I haven’t watched the various TV reality shows featuring vets, but I suspect they may show some of Emilie’s activities. She works on the wounds suffered by a swan, an owl that has suffered severe shock and is required to euthanase a small bird. The mice have to be killed by Antonin and then dissected to provide fresh meat for the convalescing birds. Most of what I’ve described might be expected in a documentary about the centre, which is also a centre in which some of the staff are ‘rehabilitating’ as well as the birds they care for. Fortunately we don’t get any of the less welcome features of TV wildlife programmes such as the anthropomorphising of birds, cheery presenters or dramatic music. However we do get some music and several other artistic devices. The brief music uses comprise three classical/religious pieces which Da Costa says came from his own sensitivity to religious music and he agrees that they are part of the melancholic feel. (The three pieces are by Georg Philipp Telemann, Dieterich Buxtehude and Sergei Rachmaninoff). Elsewhere on the soundtrack we are aware of the planes flying over. There are also several snatches of voiceover taken from a diary the filmmakers asked Antonin to keep during the production. The reference here is to Robert Bresson’s 1951 film Diary of a Country Priest. These references might lead you to think that the film is overly serious and pretentious but this isn’t so. The melancholy is relieved by moments of tenderness and humour as well as sadness. One idea that worked for me is the way in which a heat-sensitive camera is used (differently) a couple of times. The first time it is used is surprising but works well if you stick with it.

I began by suggesting that little happens in the narrative but that isn’t really the case. There is drama and Antonin definitely learns and changes as a result of his experiences. I note that the filmmakers have thought a lot about how the centre is a kind of retreat from the damage caused by humans both to each other, to other other living creatures and to the ecology as a whole. One of the references in what appears like an artist’s ‘mood board’ on MUBI’s presentation pages on the film is a cover from an edition of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. This is a gentle humanist film focusing on an institution that tries to repair some of the damage human society has caused.

The film was shot on 16mm and is presented without masking in Academy ratio. Dialogue is in French. I’m still thinking about it and I certainly recommend watching it.

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