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Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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If a bird were to make a documentary about itself — free from any human commentary or anthropomorphizing — it might look something like Kestrel’s Eye.


Filmmaker Mikael Kristersson placed remote control cameras in and around the tower of a Swedish church where a pair of kestrels live. These cameras observe the comings and goings of the birds to and from their nest. Another camera watches the birds in a nearby field where they hunt. Still another camera flies low over the country landscape to give a kestrel’s-eye view of flight.

On PBS or The Discovery Channel, this footage would be set to sober narration or emotional music. The voiceover would explain what the kestrels were doing, and why. The footage would be edited to emphasize what fierce hunters these birds are, and what cute downy chicks they have.

Instead, Kristersson edits the footage chronologically, and at a leisurely and lifelike pace. Most daring of all, he adds no narration and no music.

The first scenes of the film show the birds in their surroundings. The important landmarks soon become familiar — the nest in the tower, the cemetery in the churchyard below, the field off in the distance, the nearby brick rooftop. This is the entire world, as far as our kestrels seem to know.

A Bird’s Life

Once we’re settled in, Kristersson begins to show us the day-to-day life of the birds. For food, one bird goes to the field. It hovers over the grass, waiting for prey to come into view. When it spots a target, it tucks its wings and falls on its prey. When it finally catches a mouse or a lizard, it brings the prize back to be shared with its mate.

Another sequence shows the process of mating and egg-laying. Without narration, Kristersson tells us that each mating results in a single egg. When the kestrels are done, there are six eggs.

Finally, Kristersson shows us the process of hatching the eggs and fledging the chicks. By the end, the young birds have taken their first awkward steps toward independence.

Human Presence

Although there’s no narrator, there is a human presence. After all, the birds live in a church, in a village. Joggers pass by on the road in front of the nest. People walking dogs say hello in the street. And the groomed-gravel cemetery in the churchyard gets constant attention from the groundskeepers.

Occasionally the church becomes noisy with music and revelry as the humans mark some birth, funeral, or wedding. But the birds proceed with their own lives, oblivious to the similarities between our rituals and their own.

At its worst, Kestrel’s Eye is a little slow. Sometimes the birds do little else but watch the world go by.

But this novel approach to animal documentary filmmaking is deeper and more honest than anything you’ll see on TV.