For The Birds

Birds on Film: Some Recommended Summer Viewing

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By Brian Kluepfel

Need some summer movie recommendations? The following are not blockbusters on the scale of “Rio,” but are great portraits in social realism – and naturally, a bird is at the center of both films. Pull up a bowl of popcorn and enjoy.

Eagle Huntress: Breaking Barriers

The “Eagle Huntress” (2016) is an environmental documentary, a coming-of-age saga, a cultural journey, a feminist tale and a family drama all at once.

Exploring the relationship between nomad Kazakh families and their Golden Eagle hunting partners in an adopted Mongolian homeland, it is a visually and emotionally visceral experience. Of the harsh landscape, director Otto Bell said, “It’s the remotest part of the least populated country in the world.”

Rising out of this rough-hewn circumstance is 13-year-old Alsholpan, who becomes the region’s first female eagle hunter, with the full support of her father and grandfather, continuing a family legacy while going against the grain of a male-dominated cultural tradition.

Alsholpan is mostly unfazed by the challenge; the film shows her besting schoolmates at checkers, bragging of beating all comers in school wrestling matches (boys and girls) and risking her life to capture the female eaglet from a precarious aerie, aided by her father, a bit of rope and some good fortune. Bell states simply, “She’s a winner.”

Further bucking the tide, Alsholpan names her eagle “White Wing.” The birds are not usually given personalized monikers, either.

The tribal resistance to the ascendancy of the young huntress is shown, sometimes in stark and sometimes in comical tones. Her entrance in the annual Golden Eagle Festival is dramatic; sitting at the dinner table with the opposition shows her gumption, but not nearly as much as her performance in the competition and subsequent hunting experience, searching out foxes in -40 F, temperatures that freeze fingers to cameras and kills batteries.

Bell and his three-camera crew survived these frigid circumstances to craft a 90-minute film of a remarkable breakthrough in a 2,000-year tradition. At its center is a girl and her eagle. The cinematography is stunning, the story even better.

Kes, and the Flight of Imagination

Birds have captured the human imagination for ages, because they can do one thing we cannot: fly.

We often look to the skies for inspiration – a beautiful sunset or clouds rushing by a glowing full moon. And also up there, soaring above us in a variety of colors and shapes, are the birds. Seeing one can take us out of the humdrum of everyday life.

This is the pretext of the 1970 film “Kes,” based on Barry Hines’ novel “A Kestrel for a Knave.” Billy Casper, a scrawny schoolboy in working-class Barnsley, hopes to escape the typical destiny of his peers, many of whom will end up in the local mines. Hardly anyone in Billy’s life – his family, his teachers, social workers, the newsagent who employs him – see anything else beyond this bleak forecast.

Billy’s interaction with Kes, a kestrel which he captures from a nearby farmer’s wall, changes everything. He steals a book on falconry from a second-hand shop and immerses himself in the ancient art. As trust builds between the boy and the bird, they exercise in nearby fields, Kes flying free and diving at lures, eventually returning to Billy’s gloved hand.

The boy is under no illusion, though: he tells one teacher who shows an interest in his hobby that Kes is trained, but he’s not tame.

“I think he’s doing me a favor here just letting me look at him,” he said to the teacher.

Many of us feel the same way when we see any bird. By giving us a chance to appreciate their beauty, their wisdom, their airborne acrobatics, they take us on flights of imagination that we dare not take alone.

“Kes” was directed by Ken Loach, whose depiction of working-class England in various films comprises a master class in cinematic social realism that is well worth watching. The Yorkshire accents are so strong that the film (in English!) requires subtitles.

“Kes” had such an impact on the town that there is now a statue of the bird and boy in Barnsley, “The Barry Hines Memorial.”

Brian Kluepfel is an Ossining-based author for the Lonely Planet travel series, Birdwatching Magazine and many other fine publications including this one. 

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