For The Birds

***

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Kathy and Pogo in For The Birds
"Following the couple over several months, this documentary takes us through heartbreak and on to what is, ultimately, a surprisingly hopeful place."

As so often, it began with a single act of kindness. Kathy found a lost bird, nursed it back to health and gave it a home. Knowing she could do that, she was naturally eager to help when she found another. But it's one thing to look after a couple of birds in the back garden - quite another to have 200. As Kathy's collection of chickens, ducks and geese has grown, she's found herself unable to provide the level of care that they need. Fearing predators, she keeps them shut away when she's not there, and even then they have very little room to move around. Whilst her attachment to them is obvious and she knows each one by name, it's not surprising that the animal charity workers who discover them find the situation horrifying. Gently, trying to balance their concern for the birds with concern for Kathy, they try to persuade her to let them take some away.

When Kathy's birds first started to be moved to an animal sanctuary, local television programmes - which we see clips of here - described her as an abusive hoarder, something she found intensely distressing. Richard Miron's film attempts to present a more balanced picture. Yes, the birds are in terrible condition. Yes, it's wonderful to see them in their new home, with the ducks discovering the delights of swimming for the first time. But Kathy loves them and feels that she is being lied to and mistreated as they are gradually removed from her care. What's more, she has made real sacrifices in order to keep them - not least her marriage.

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When we first meet Gary, he and Kathy are still together but the tension between them is clear. He never expected to have this kind of family. There are even birds living inside their house, which is falling to pieces (it's not mentioned directly here, but most bird faeces are acidic and highly corrosive). He never wanted to live in filth. There's also a suggestion that, with Kathy continually prioritising the birds over him, he feels neglected. He still cares deeply for her and doesn't want to break her heart, but things just aren't working.

Following the couple over several months, during which we also get to know some of the animal charity workers and see the effect that the situation is having on them, this documentary takes us through heartbreak and on to what is, ultimately, a surprisingly hopeful place. There 's some good fortune involved - Kathy gets more support than many people in her circumstances - and there are some questions left unanswered. Why do we never see Kathy visit the sanctuary where her birds are living happy lives? How did she get to this point before anyone in a position of authority tried to intervene? We're also rather limited in the time we get to spend with the birds themselves, so we don't have the chance to relate to any of them as individuals, as Kathy does.

Kathy doesn't have great people skills - she may indeed find it easier to socialise with the birds - but the film never comments on this, and by creating space for her to put her case regardless it illustrates how vulnerable people like her are to media monstering. The charity workers retain sympathy for her and imply that they've encountered people with similar issues before, though never anything that has gone this far. Miron doesn't seek to provide wider context but keeps his focus on Kathy, letting this individual story speak for others. The result is an intimate portrait which invites viewers to engage with someone they might otherwise avoid and acknowledge as she must that love and care are not always the same thing.

Reviewed on: 26 May 2019
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For The Birds packshot
A portrait of a woman whose love of birds puts her in a legal custody battle.

Director: Richard Miron

Year: 2018

Runtime: 92 minutes

Country: US

Festivals:

DOC NYC 2018

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