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A still from "Pelican Dreams"
Filmmaker Judy Irving and pelican
Filmmaker Judy Irving and pelican

If you think your life is rough, try being a pelican. Judy Irving, the filmmaker who brought us “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill” now turns her attention to a bird she has always loved – the pelican.

In “Pelican Dreams,” Judy shows us that pelicans are in peril for a number of reasons, mostly as a result  of human behavior, of course. The birds have been around for millions of years, but it’s in the last 100 that they’ve begun to struggle. If they aren’t dying from starvation because of contamination or over-fishing, they’re affected by climate change, being caught in fishing nets or oil spills, or swallowing fishing hooks and lines. The latter is perhaps the most common reason a pelican will end up in a wildlife hospital.

"Gigi" lands on the Golden Gate Bridge in "Pelican Dreams"
“Gigi” lands on the Golden Gate Bridge in “Pelican Dreams”

Judy’s exploration began with a lone pelican showing up on the Golden Gate Bridge. “Because pelicans have an ancient magic about them, and because their near-extinction and recovery parallel our human relationship to the environment,” she has said, “I’ve been wanting to make a film about them for years, but I needed a good story! One August afternoon, a confused young pelican landed on the roadway of the Golden Gate Bridge, causing a spectacular traffic jam and providing the beginning of a perfect narrative arc for this film.”

A pelican in flight in "Pelican Dreams"
A pelican in flight in “Pelican Dreams”

Apparently, in the last few years, a number of pelicans have been showing up where they don’t belong, confused and in distress. Luckily, the authorities managed to capture the pelican on the bridge and take her to a wildlife hospital where a specialist named Monty examined her.

Judy dubbed the pelican “Gigi,” which stands for G.G. or Golden Gate. Monty, on the other hand, preferred to call the bird by the color and number of her leg band. It’s important to him to remember that the pelicans he cares for are wild animals and not pets. Still, he admits that while the job is far from glamorous, it’s the proximity to wildlife that makes it rewarding. As he puts it in the film, “We don’t want them to become accustomed to us, but who wouldn’t want a pelican as a buddy?”

Judy’s camera allows us to follow Gigi’s progress. She hasn’t been injured. Instead, she’s dehydrated and malnourished. With some TLC, she’s able to be reintroduced into the wild, but will she be able to find enough food after her return? That’s anyone’s guess. We also follow another captive pelican named Morro with a permanent injury that prevents his return to the wild, and we learn about his human caretakers.

In a comical scene, we watch a captive pelican investigate the interior of a human home with much incredulous curiosity. As the human inhabitant comments, it’s akin to our visiting the moon. After just a few minutes, the bird decides to step back outside into more familiar territory.

You will learn many interesting things about pelicans, but I think the most interesting is that they only seem at first glance to be clumsy. In flight, they are enormously graceful, which Judy shows in slow motion footage. The last shot is a lone pelican silhouetted against the pink light of dusk as it performs a perfect, balletic dive into the sea.

A pelican performs its balletic dive in "Pelican Dreams"
A pelican performs its balletic dive in “Pelican Dreams”

I enjoyed this film particularly because I’m a bird-lover and avid birdwatcher and bird photographer. A woman in the film gets a pelican tattoo, and I could easily relate. I have a hummingbird tattoo on my shoulder and a parrot on my ankle. But you don’t have to be a bird enthusiast to get into this movie. I suppose you need to be an animal lover, but I’m not sure I’ve met someone who isn’t. In other words, I recommend “Pelican Dreams” for nearly all ages.

The film opens in New York and Los Angeles on November 7, 2014 and many cities throughout the country later in the year. Keep an eye on your local listings for dates and venues.

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