- The Washington Times - Friday, March 18, 2005

“San Franciscans are just wild about them,” says Judy Irving, alluding to the title subjects of her graceful documentary feature “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill,” now playing at the Avalon and Landmark E Street Cinema. “They’re colorful, eccentric, exotic immigrants,” she enthuses during a telephone interview. “That makes them a lot like the rest of us.”

Born in New Jersey in the 1950s, Miss Irving migrated to Northern California as a graduate student in film and broadcasting at Stanford University. She confesses that she was in flight in a manner of speaking: Despite having graduated with honors as a psychology major at Connecticut College, she had no desire to pursue a career in the field. “All I wanted to do at that point was travel and write,” she recalls.

Several years of free-lancing led her to still photography because she was often obliged to illustrate her own articles. Stanford added systematic training in cinematography, and Miss Irving got to travel to Alaska, Japan, Botswana and Nepal on assorted projects. She was a camera operator for hire on Michael Moore’s “Roger and Me” several years after completing a polemical feature of her own in 1983: “Dark Circle,” an account of the nuclear power industry that took a prize at the Sundance Film Festival and made it to the preliminaries of the Academy Awards.

“Wild Parrots” was eligible for the Oscar year of 2003 because it had festival showings long before the current theatrical run seemed feasible. This situation is not atypical with documentaries.

“I think I blew it,” Miss Irving muses. “I should have had more faith and waited a year. I didn’t know we’d get distribution. Now the movie is literally flying into theaters.” About 50, anyway, with strong prospects of reaching 100 in the next few months.

A resident of San Francisco since 1977, Miss Irving has devoted a good deal of her work to environmental topics and the landscapes around the Bay Area.

She’s working on an introductory film about an ambitious project in the South Bay aimed at reclaiming salt ponds as an expansive sanctuary for migratory birds, providing a spacious rest stop along the Pacific flyway between Alaska and South America. “It could become a kind of Western Everglades,” she remarks.

In “Wild Parrots,” which began production toward the end of 1998 and accumulated footage over the next four-plus years, Miss Irving discovered a combination with exceptional, downright life-changing promise.

She caught up with the bird-watching passion of an amateur enthusiast, Mark Bittner. He had no profession to speak of while discovering the avocation celebrated in Miss Irving’s movie: the study and care of a parrot flock in North Beach.

Mr. Bittner, who had migrated from the Northwest to San Francisco about 20 years before emerging as a local celebrity, had been mentioned as an ideal subject by several of Miss Irving’s friends. “I finally took their advice,” she says. “Mark was still kind of obscure when we met. Shortly after he agreed to the film, he became better known.

“Stories kept popping up about the deadline that would force him to move from his cottage on Telegraph Hill … but the move wasn’t as soon as many of the stories indicated. Anyway, the New York Times and Los Angeles Times picked up on it, and CNN and People magazine.”

Mr. Bittner was living in a small cottage that dated from around the 1880s. “It was falling apart,” Miss Irving recalls, “and the landlords had been really good to him. They extended his residence for another three years rent-free. We tried to mute any criticism of them because there had been misinformed stories that sort of treated them like heavies. It was probably a misunderstanding, or a resort to cliche. Alarms were sounded about bohemianism dying on Telegraph Hill, but that wasn’t the case. We didn’t want to perpetuate any of the misconceptions, but at the same time, I didn’t want to go into huge detail about it in the movie.”

Miss Irving is also reluctant to be entirely candid about developments in the two years since the last scenes in the movie were photographed. Total disclosure might deflate a happy surprise reserved for the fadeout.

Suffice it to say that the human subjects are alive and well and still on very good terms. A more prosperous Mark Bittner is once again living on Telegraph Hill, next door to his former landlords. The renovations that begin toward the end of the movie have reunited members of the “Wild Parrots” fraternity instead of scattering them.

The birds also seem to be thriving. “What’s cool,” Judy Irving says, “is that Mark is back on the Hill and feeding the flock again … He tries to restrict himself to one feeding a day. His knowledge of the flock isn’t what it once was. He’s returned to a larger group of birds. The youngest ones were born after he left the cottage, and there are a lot of them.”

Some old-timers remain. Miss Irving singled out Sophie, who loses her consort Picasso in the film. “She has a new mate,” the filmmaker reports. “You could say there’s been quite a bit of pairing up since the movie was finished.”

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