Alibi V.23 No.47 • Nov 20-26, 2014 

Film Review

Pelican Dreams

Odd duck of a documentary looks in on our fine, feathered friends

Pelican Dreams

Directed by Judy Irving

Filmmaker Judy Irving contemplates her subject.
Filmmaker Judy Irving contemplates her subject.
In August of 2008 an injured California brown pelican was found wandering in the middle of the Golden Gate Bridge. With her rescue captured on cell phone and uploaded to YouTube, she became something of a sensation. Injured but otherwise young and healthy, she was taken to a wildlife sanctuary in northern California to recuperate. That’s where filmmaker Judy Irving came in.

Irving apparently found her niche in the world of cinematic ornithology when she directed the award-winning 2003 documentary The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. “I’ve loved pelicans since I was 5, when I first saw them in Florida. They look like flying dinosaurs,” Irving says in the gentle, deeply personal narration for her new bird-based work of nonfiction, Pelican Dreams. “There’s something about their grace while flying and awkwardness on land that I can relate to.”

Boil it down and we’re just animals like the rest of them. But our effect on the environment can be huge. Humans can cause incredible damage to animal populations. They can also, as Irving points out, work tirelessly to save them.

As expected, Pelican Dreams follows the rehabilitation and release of the pelican Irving dubs “Gigi” (after Golden Gate). But the filmmaker uses that simple narrative as a springboard from which to examine the modern-day state of coastal California wildlife in general and pelicans in particular. She takes her camera to the windswept Channel Islands to find the birthplace of many California pelicans. She hangs out at the rehab facility where Gigi is being kept. She visits a couple in Northern California who foster injured birds in an attempt to return them to the wild.

Pelican Dreams is not your average, education-minded nature documentary—the kind you can see every day on Animal Planet. Irving is no scientist and doesn’t have any special understanding of the biology, mating habits or flight mechanics of birds—though such topics are touched upon here. Like Telegraph Hill before it, Pelican Dreams is much more about our relationship to nature and vice versa. Irving muses at length about what it must be like to fly, comparing the sensation to the flying dreams she had as a kid. How we view nature and how we interact with it is important. Irving and her films know it.

Speaking to a wildlife conservationist early in the film and suggesting the name “Gigi” for her subject, the expert is hesitant. Animals at the rehab center are not named. People aren’t encouraged to empathize with them. These are wild animals, not pets. The ultimate goal is to get them back to their life in the wild—without making them dependent on humans. But what motivates humans to do that? Isn’t it empathy? It’s a fine line, obviously, one that Irving contemplates heavily here.

Amid her travels up and down the West Coast, Irving takes time to flash back to the 1960s when California pelican populations were devastated by DDT pollution. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, with oil spills, climate change and overfishing showing how much effect we humans have on nature. Boil it down and we’re just animals like the rest of them. But our effect on the environment can be huge. Humans can cause incredible damage to animal populations. They can also, as Irving points out, work tirelessly to save them.

Less didactic and far more philosophical, Pelican Dreams captures some beautiful, meditative images along the way: Birds wheeling in slo-mo over the churning Pacific, the reflection of the Golden Gate Bridge broken up on the waves of San Francisco Bay like the brush strokes on a Monet painting. If you like birds or nature or pretty pictures, Pelican Dreams has got you covered.

Sparse, empathetic and beautifully shot, Pelican Dreams is a quirky love letter to an awkward sort of bird. You may not have spared a lot of thought to the humble pelican before this film—but you certainly will afterward. With her latest work, documentary filmmaker Judy Irving has created another lovely, thoughtful look at how we affect animals and how they, ultimately, affect us.