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Arts + CultureMovies'The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill' fly again on...

‘The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill’ fly again on local screens

Bird-lover Mark Bittner and filmmaker Judy Irving speak about restoring the film for a newly flocking audience

Cherry-headed conures transformed the lives of first Mark Bittner, who came to feed and care for the raucous birds when he moved into a cottage on Telegraph Hill’s Greenwich Steps, and then filmmaker Judy Irving when she chose to make a documentary, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, about Mark and the lively, neon-bright flock.

“It changed the scope of my career,” Irving says of the 2003 film, which is returning to theaters in a 20th Anniversary 4K digital restoration. “It just brought me out of the doldrums, so to speak, of the short environmental films that I had been making.”

“I was hoping that somebody would come along, wanting to make some little video or something,” Bittner says. “I wanted something to be able to remember them by, because I knew I wouldn’t be (taking care of them) forever. They were so colorful.”

Two other filmmakers approached Bittner at different times about making films but neither followed through. But Irving was all in, spending four-and-half years on the project. The work became a true collaboration between documentarian and subject. Bittner, who is credited as an additional photographer on the film, remembers lugging equipment up the steps on shooting days. More than that, Irving needed him as she logged her footage. To the untrained eye, the green and red birds look very much alike but Bittner knew them as individuals and could identify them as well as the behavior they exhibited.

Last year, the San Francisco Chronicle mounted a contest to name the official animal of San Francisco and the parrots won, the designation becoming official when the Board of Supervisors passed a resolution. The birds’ place in the city’s heart was not always so secure. In the film, there is mention that they are an invasive species and that some environmentalists would argue for their extermination.

This was something Bittner was aware of before Irving started to shoot, recalling an email conversation with someone in Chicago dedicated to protecting that city’s flock. His correspondent advised making the birds famous might be the only way to protect them. Bittner started working on a book, called The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill: A Love Story, that became a bestseller. The one-two punch of documentary and book turned the flock, which can be seen not just on Telegraph Hill but also in the Financial District and Presidio, into a tourist attraction.

The film is a celebration of the parrots and their caretaker. When Irving was editing it, she realized she was working on the best work she had made to date. She hoped that audiences would like it as much as she did and that it would resonate. Shadow Distribution certainly believed in it, putting a small, independent documentary out into 500 theaters. People responded, finding the images of chattering, wheeling parrots and Bittner’s gentle communion with them irresistible.

“Five year olds were memorizing the film and torturing their parents, watching it 30 times, and then 90-year-olds were getting weepy-eyed about the talking about consciousness and death, and how death isn’t the end,” Irving says. “I realized, ‘OK, this has a broad audience.”

Bittner, with birds

What occasioned the 4k restoration of the film was practicality. Streaming services will only accept films available in high-definition resolution and “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill” was in standard-definition. So, Irving along with Sarah Lemarié, the CEO of Mickaboo Companion Bird Rescue, who is also a software engineer, undertook the arduous task of cleaning up the film. Irving describes the process as “purgatory.”

“We did a tremendous number of hours on just what we call ‘dust busting,’ getting rid of all the little specks of dust, the hairs in the gate, the scratches, whatever was wrong with a frame,” she says. “We fixed it over 119,000 frames.”

For color correction and grain reduction, Irving turned to Gary Coates. The results are spectacular. Irving cites one scene in the film when a fledgling parrot leaves the nest for the first time. She remembers shooting the scene before dawn and she had not loaded high-speed film in her 16mm camera, so the images were dark and grainy. With the technology available today, Coates was able to brighten the scene and restore definition.

Irving recently sold out the Roxie with a screening of Cold Refuge, her latest documentary about the restorative properties of swimming in the San Francisco Bay. Now, she’s done it with the opening night of The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill’s week-long engagement, as the film once again makes a splash.

“I got a really long email a couple of nights ago from a woman who saw it when she was 10. She loved it, loved it, loved it, and is so looking forward to seeing it in the theater,” Bittner says. “That kind of thing, we welcome it.”

Adds Irving, “I am looking forward to people who have never seen it before seeing it for the first time. Let’s say you’re a young parent and you have little kids and you’re thinking of maybe bringing them. That young parent was probably five or six years old when she saw the film, so it’s opening it up to a whole new generation. That’s exciting.”

THE WILD PARROTS OF TELEGRAPH HILL 20th anniversary 4K restoration is playing at the Roxie through January 18. It screens Sunday, Jan. 14, at the Smith Rafael Film Center, and Sunday, February 3, at Bolinas Community Center. 

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