When Portland filmmaker Irene Taylor Brodsky arrived on the Lousiana coast last June, she came in search of a single brown pelican to star in her newest documentary.
Over 7,000 pelicans have been killed as a result of the 2010 BP oil spill that spread throughout the Gulf of Mexico. Taylor Brodsky wanted to find one oiled bird that had survived and to follow it through the long process of capture, cleaning, rehabilitation and release. She found her star, LA895 — the 895th pelican to be rescued — on the shores of one of Lousiana’s coastal islands.
Taylor Brodsky calls her film Saving Pelican 895 a “fairy tale,” not only because of the ultimately happy fate of its subject but because of the simplicity of its storyline. Instead of trying to tackle the many issues surrounding the oil spill and cleanup, the film focuses on the story of pelican 895 and its road to recovery. The result, she hopes, is a film that shows audiences “some positive moments in a terrible event” and helps to illustrate the tremendous efforts undertaken by by conservationists, government agencies and wildlife activists who joined forces in hopes of preserving this one life.
The Portland Art Museum will host a sneak preview screening of Saving Pelican 895 on Wednesday, April 6 along with a filmmaker discussion and audience Q&A session. The event is sold out, but viewers can see the film when it makes its debut on HBO on April 20 to mark the first anniversary of the oil spill.
Q&A with Filmmaker Irene Taylor Brodsky
Why did you decide to focus on one bird to tell this story?
Well, I think from a storytelling perspective, sometimes through one character we can show a lot of nuance and we also can bring people into a subject in a different kind of way. We had so much coverage of the gulf oil spill about all the complexities of energy and environmental degradation and loss of life and loss of jobs and all of these other things. Everything was so issue-oriented and I just really wanted to make a film that was character-oriented, that was just about one person or, in this case, one animal. I felt like the bird, that little 4-pound bird, had enough complexity in all of the aspects of his life that you could hint at all of these other things going on without going into them.
How did you get involved in covering the oil spill cleanup?
[On previous projects] I’ve definitely focused only on people. I’m not a nature filmmaker. I got a call from HBO, who was my partner in this film, and we talked about the idea together. From the get-go, we thought that the strength of the story would be if I could find one bird and follow that bird through the course of its life, whether it lived or it died. We weren’t trying to find a bird that lived. We weren’t trying to find a bird that would die. We were just trying to find a bird that all the agencies that were involved would let us stay with the whole time. And that was incredibly difficult.
Why was it so hard to do that?
There was so much tight media control during the oil spill and, while the media was granted access, I was asking for access all the way through this bird’s trajectory. Which meant I had to be there when he got captured, I had to be there when he got his first medicine, I had to be there when he got his first checkup, I had to be there when he got washed, when he got dried, when he got put into Pen One and then put into Pen Two and then released. I had to be there every step of the way and every step required one more permission, one more different part of the whole maze of rehab. So it was tricky because they were very protective of these birds.
How many different agencies or groups did you have to deal with?
Primarily it was four. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Lousiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries were responsible, along with BP’s operations unit, to capture these birds. And then these birds would be delivered to the international bird research and rescue center and they would take care of that bird throughout its rehabilitation. And then the bird would go back to the state and the feds to be transferred to its delivery spot.
What was the scene like when you first arrived to begin filming?
I think the very first thing I noticed when I got there was that, when you were on land, there was no trace of oil anywhere. But the number of people — there were so many people who were working on this spill. You would see school buses and greyhound-style buses going by filled with workers — guys and gals in suits who were doing beach cleanup. You felt like you were in an area that wasn’t accustomed to having so many people. We couldn’t find a place to stay, we could hardly find a place to eat, it was just really, really crowded with people trying to clean everything up. It wasn’t until you got out in the water that you saw [the oil].
What was the mood like out there during the cleanup?
With the wildlife folks, I would say I felt like I was in a trauma unit of an ER hospital. Everyone was super focused on what was right in front of them. No one was sitting there talking about oil or about how terrible BP is. People were talking about “I’m hot, I’m thirsty and I’m really worried about this bird making it so I’m going to focus on this bird.” And when they took their breaks, they laughed and ate ice cream sandwiches and just tried to make it through their day.
As a filmmaker I wanted to ask them about all the big questions but they were most interested in what was right in front of them. They had a job to do and they were very focused, in a very compassionate way, on doing it.
What would you have done if something different happened to 895?
The plan always was to film the bird no matter what happened to him. I wanted him to live, because he was a bird who deserved to live. If he had died, I would have made a film about a bird that died. I didn’t have an agenda. I wasn’t trying to make a film about a bird that is a success story.
I call this film a fairy tale because in the end it is very simplistic. And the story is simplistic by design. I think that it would have diluted the power of his story, his road to recovery, if I had tried to bring in the issues. They are there, you see them, they are mentioned. You see the rigs, you hear the rigs, you see the oil, you see the bulldozers, you see the cleanup crews. But you aren’t meeting those people and that was on purpose. I filmed some of that stuff but when you put it all together it was just camouflaging what was really important, so we just got rid of most of all that.
Do you have any updates about what happened to the birds that were rescued and released?
They have found a number of birds that were rescued and banded. They have found them alive and flying through the air or walking on the beach. They have not found any dead banded birds that were rescued from the oil spill. But they haven’t found our bird. I’d like to believe that he’s out there somewhere.
You say in the film that over 7,000 pelicans were killed in the oil spill and about a thousand were ultimately rescued. Why is it important that these birds were rehabilitated?
To not try to save these birds — when we have the resources to do it — doesn’t seem right to me. And the act of saving a bird is, I think, a good humanitarian exercise for us to both do and, more importantly, to witness. Because most of us will never rehabilitate a bird, most of us will never wash a bird. But if we watch these people in the midst of all this mayhem and sadness and disgust do these positive things it is affirming. And so for me personally it was affirming. Is it the whole story? Absolutely not, but it’s one small story but I think a hopeful one.
You will be previewing the film for a Portland audience at the Portland Art Museum next week. What do you hope people will get out of the film?
I want the film to bring home a little flavor of what it was like down there during that time. And by bring it home I’m not trying to postulate about all of the issues, I’m just trying to show them one little vignette. And I hope that they will see that there were some really positive moments in a really terrible event. The human effort and the human cooperation was really affirming to me and I hope that people see that too. We didn’t do everything wrong. We did some things right and I think, with the birds we were able to rehabilitate, we got it right.