About 20 movies are opening this Saturday at the virtual portion of the International Wildlife Film Festival. Here are some spotlight reviews. For the full list, head to wildlifefilms.org.
‘The Last Song of the Nightingale’
Directors: Katie Stacey, Luke Massey
Run time: 57 min.
Country: United Kingdom
This particular bird, with its deep repertoire of songs, draws all types of fans.
In “Song of the Nightingale,” the testimonials come from poets. Keats wrote an ode. Musicians like to jam with them, whether they play jazz or sing folk. A graffiti artist appreciates them for aesthetic and environmental reasons. Someone recovering from personal crises pays tribute to the healing qualities of birdsong. To writers, they’re “the master, the maestro” of hazel coppice.
Scientists, like that street artist, have multifaceted reasons, too. This documentary purposefully casts a wide net while raising a conservation issue, showing the importance of a species through the aesthetics and human history before getting into down into the stickier issues of biodiversity and habitat preservation.
It’s a helpful primer for North American novices, too. Through colorful animations, contemporary interviews and archival footage, “Song of the Nightingale” starts out by sketching a cultural primer on the bird in the United Kingdom. Even if you haven’t spent much time in Europe, you likely know what a nightingale is, but probably don’t know what it sounds like. It’s kind of a “mythological bird,” as writer Richard Mabey calls it. Once-abundant and virtuosic compared to some species with a more limited vocabulary, it was revered by writers, leading to what one commentator calls a self-fulfilling prophecy on the page.
Besides capturing the attention of artists, everyday people in Victorian London would take trips to hear them. Some trapped them and kept them as song birds. (We learn of a recipe for pet nightingale’s preferred pasta — a pretzel-like concoction.) This ubiquitous status diminished as England grew more industrial, and then the populations began rapidly falling.
After the history has caught up to the present, the film takes a tour of efforts to conserve them. The level of deforestation there is high, lending extra gravity to efforts to stop development in unspoiled areas that are left. Residents lobby to prevent the development of a protected area into housing. Other stopping points include a preserve for “rewilding,” a variation on conservation in which land is repopulated with a low density of modern animal species, let loose to let nature take its course. An entomologist explains the dire situation we face due to the collapse of insect species. (Rewilding helps.) Finally, the film zooms farther out still on the issue of migration, and efforts to track what’s happening as they head to their wintering grounds in west Africa.
Through an unconventional humanities-centered approach, the movie encourages thinking about pressing and sometimes overwhelming issues by starting with the smaller scale of everyday life — a restorative walk in the park that’s made better by a species that needs help. “We’ve robbed ourselves of an enormous richness,” as naturalist Chris Packham says.
Director: Steve Gooder
Run time: 58 mins.
Like “Nightingale,” this feature doesn’t push humans outside of the frame, and instead considers how and what wildlife contributes in our shared existence.
At 14 million people and 62 miles wide, “wildlife” might not be the first thing you think of when Tokyo comes to mind. However, the film’s run time of under an hour feels short. It takes you to green spaces, open waters, rooftops and forested fringes where you’ll find wild tanukis, terns, goshawks, macaques, sharks and more.
The film moves through the seasons, beginning with spring and the cherry blossoms, through to fall and winter.
Not all is cute sequences of moon bears, though. The food chain exists, and goshawks and crows battling each other in a park, a spectacle for viewers with very large cameras, not unlike wolf-watchers in Yellowstone National Park, adds to the drama. That's a rare form of attack, and one of many engrossing mini-narratives the filmmakers edit together.
The film includes spotlights on innovations that people have developed to support wildlife. One effort is atop a water treatment facility, where a false beach provides nesting grounds for thousands of terns. It requires more than just spreading out pebbles. School-children help carve wooden decoys to lure real ones. Unfortunately, the open space left hatchlings vulnerable to kestrel hawks, so people built small shelters for them to hide in.
Sharks had become vulnerable, too, because of fishing — they would be caught in nets, and before they could be separated, thrash around and damage the harvest. Fishermen might cut them before dropping them back in. To solve the problem, a scientist built a feeding site, which is captured in gorgeous shots, or depending on your fear of the predators, terrifying images of a school of sharks.
It culminates by moving to the outer west edge of the city, into the forest and mountains where rural life is being abandoned and creatures, such as moon bears and macaques, are reclaiming the land.