Too often the documenting aspect of documentaries is forgotten, particularly as the need for commentary in our culture increases. Emboldened by the way the internet has allowed everyone with computer access and a decent ISP to become especially vocal and subjective sociologists, the stars of the modern documentary movement can't resist placing themselves in front of their cameras, like some journalistic equivalent of a mad scientist who injects himself with his own experimental formulas. Which is part of what makes Jeffrey Kimball's bird watching documentary Birders such a refreshing work– despite its purposefully low stakes focus and quiet, deliberate pacing, Kimball's film is thrillingly eager to avoid this dominant intrusion instinct.
More or less shedding commentary altogether, Birders instead offers an intriguing yet methodical document of a culture that is too often thought of as embarrassingly geeky if it's thought of at all. Strengthened by an extremely precise and concise emphasis on the bird watching community of New York's Central Park rather than bird watching on the whole, Kimball documents not the minute details of birder life but the elements of the hobby that bring its supporters peace. While Kimball is somewhat present through sparing voiceovers and interview appearances, he is mostly happy to allow his fellow birders and their own subjects to be at the forefront. For the former that mostly comes through in Kimball's documentation of their birdwatching habits as well as brief interviews as he has them explain what brought them to the hobby and what they gain from it. In the latter, it comes across in well shot depictions of Central Park's "migrators," birds who use the park as a layover during their epic journeys across North and South America.
Beautifully edited, Birders is unabashedly slow paced, evoking the tranquility of the hobby it documents in a manner that doesn't come across as forced or preachy, as is too often the case with nature films. Just as Kimball's birder subjects are perfectly frank about the way their hobby can be seen as embarrassing– as novelist Jonathan Franzen in particular is quick to point out with his comments on the way standing in the wild looking through binoculars at something only you can see all too often makes you the sudden focus of everyone around you– the director is equally frank in his presentation, letting the film function as a basically accurate depiction of the hobby with no fuss or attempts to enliven it. Likewise, while the advancement of humanity and the impact that has on nature is brought up, so too are the positive impacts of nature management projects like Central Park itself, which is a man made phenomenon.
But perhaps the most striking and emotionally powerful aspect of Birders is the story of Starr Saphir, a birder of some notoriety who leads guided tours through Central Park, but is now faced with her mortality in the form of a terminal breast cancer prognosis. Starr is clearly beloved by the other birders in the park, with one younger birder claiming that Starr is an important part of the park itself. Rather than let her prognosis get to her, Starr instead argues that the prognosis has enabled her to enjoy her birdwatching even more than she already did and that her only regret is that she hasn't counted as many birds as she could have. Starr is an inspiration without being forcibly placed on any kind of pedestal; her quiet dignity and devotion to a hobby that has brought her immense happiness regardless of what others might think is a wonder to behold.
It's clear throughout Birders that Kimball isn't out to convert new birders (though he undoubtedly wouldn't mind if that was the case), but to provide context and meaning for a hobby that has a rich history but remains somewhat looked down upon in society. Birders doesn't aim to rally people to its cause or to incite investigation and action, and by taking that passive objectivity it arguably does a better job at inspiring a change of thought than a more aggressive approach would have. A beautiful and rewarding work, Birders is yet another worthwhile entry in HBO's longstanding history of excellent documentaries that enrich the genre.
Birders is currently airing on HBO, check your local listings for details:
When he's not writing about the cape and spandex set and functioning as the Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin, Nick Hanover is a book, film and music critic for Spectrum Culture and has contributed to No Tofu Magazine, Performer Magazine, Port City Lights and various other international publications. By which he means Canadian rags you have no reason to know anything about. He also translates for "Partytime" Lukash's Panel Panopticon.