Open City Documentary Festival 2020 – Focus: Bird Island, A Quiet Place


Margaret Salmon writes about her experience viewing Bird Island, and the film’s poetic-political qualities. Maya Kosa and Sérgio da Costa’s Bird Island is available in Block 2 (Sat 12th Sept midday – Tue 15th Sept midnight BST).

Bird Island—the second feature of Switzerland-based directorial duo Maya Kosa and Sergio da Costais a film set in, and about, a real place: the Ornithological Rehabilitation Centre in Genthod, situated next to Geneva’s international airport. The film’s narrative follows Antonin, a new employee training at this centre for the rehabilitation of injured wild birds. Assigned there by a government employment agency, he is responsible for breeding and killing mice and rats for the recovering birds to eat. A delicate and pensive young man, Antonin is recovering from a difficult illness; he is also being rehabilitated.

Antonin has arrived to a place, as the film’s title suggests. And Bird Island is an expanse between fiction and non-fiction, a film that lives in the land of intuitive cinema. It is a work deeply invested in image-making; a portrait film with narrative interventions. The fine grade and pastel colours argues for decency, for graceful consideration from its audience. Da Costa is present on camera, seemingly co-directing through the lens, and his handheld work sways softly throughout the film. Its montage is graceful too; paced, just actively enough to pull us out of an aesthetic lull, back into an experience. 

There are dramatic contrasts to consider here: a caged haven for the birds sits next to a booming airport. The centre’s soul is its staff, who witness and assist cycles of injury and health. These characters seem to be passing through as well; humans so ethereal, so internalised, that only through the camera’s persistent optics do we recognise complexity and radiance. Are they, too, full of grace? Antonin is also returning to health, as he learns to care for and kill the rodents; and rebirth is everywhere. But rehabilitation is not without cost or contradiction; besides that of death and resurrection/reproduction (whether of rats, mice, birds, people) there is the paradox of the airport and the aviary. Can humans and birds share the sky? Birds are dangerous to airplanes, airplanes pose a danger to birds. A fact of life?

What about the noise? Bird Island seems a quiet place. Punctuated by gentle Antonin’s Bressonian voice-over, despite fleeting exchanges between workers, and every so often a short musical caress, this is a silent film. The birds chatter and the rodent’s cages rattle, but both animals and people are as muted as the colours. What seems subdued is also a transcription of shock; a poetic, beautiful film coma. We’re jolted to consciousness by the loud metallic wailing of a plane landing or taking off, and the airport, the world, encroaches. This is noise pollution—two words, all lower case—words which signify less violence than they enact. Visceral everyday scenes insist on a wakening too; we see a wounded bird being euthanised; or witness a tiny mouse being sliced open, its guts removed, then cut up and fed to a stunned owl; or note the aftermath of a blood-thirsty attack by renegade rats in the small bird cage. 

A lot is happening. I am affected, I worry for these island castaways. But why do I worry? Is death, rebirth, vulnerability, and violence, just… how things are? This film isn’t concerned so much with answers; though there is hope in Antonin’s final performance. Kosa and Da Costa instead create a careful, sensual space for enquiry and interspecific acknowledgement, which, over time, may provoke awareness and perhaps even change. This is an island, after all, that is situated in the transformative territory of poetic, political film. 

Margaret Salmon is an artist, educator and filmmaker. Her films are distributed by LUX and her work is found in international art institutions, film festivals, collections and galleries.

Tickets for Bird Island are on sale now.