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‘Wild Parrots’ Filmmaker Surfaces With Heartwarming ‘Cold Refuge’

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a woman with short gray hair wearing a black long-sleeved shirt and tan vest stands behind a movie camera in front of the Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge
Judy Irving shoots a scene from 'Cold Refuge,' which gets a world premiere on April 16 in San Francisco. (Courtesy Pelican Media)

It’s been almost 20 years since Judy Irving’s The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill made her something of a local folk hero. OK, the real folk hero who emerged from the documentary was Mark Bittner, the endearing, erstwhile Telegraph Hill philosopher who befriended the parrots. But what’s a star without a director?

Irving reclaimed the spotlight last month when the winged wildlife she made internationally famous topped the Chronicle contest to choose San Francisco’s official animal. The Washington Post quoted the filmmaker extensively in a lengthy article, and the Board of Supervisors scheduled a vote to turn the Chron’s online tally into an official proclamation. (Cue the unofficial song of San Francisco, “White Bird,” except the color scheme doesn’t match.)

Irving and Bittner fell in love and married in the course of making what became one of the top-grossing docs of 2005. Following in the wake of Pelican Dreams (2014), which circles outward from the rescue of an off-course bird that tied up traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge, Irving has a new film that solidifies her standing as the Bay Area’s preeminent environmental filmmaker.

Cold Refuge (receiving its world premiere Sunday, April 16 at Cowell Theater in Fort Mason in the International Ocean Film Festival) recounts the journeys of half a dozen local swimmers to the open waters of San Francisco Bay. Friends of the filmmaker from the South End Rowing Club, where Irving has been a member since 1989, each hurdled a potentially debilitating event via immersing themselves in the quintessential postcard shot.

a man with brown skin stands with his shirt off and hands clasped in a yellow swim cap and goggles
Naji Ali, a member of the South End Rowing Club, contemplates the water. (Courtesy Pelican Media)

“When you go in, you have to be completely focused on what you’re doing,” Irving says, leaning forward in a chair in her North Beach office. “There’s no multi-tasking. You’re paying attention to the tides and the currents and the waves and the wind and you are looking around to see if there are predators, or other swimmers or boats that might knock into you.”

Irving swam long distances in the Bay three or four times a week in the 1990s, including not-infrequent forays from the Bay Bridge to the club and around Alcatraz and back. She continues to swim in and around Aquatic Park, albeit less often, and Cold Refuge combines that insider’s understanding with a birds-eye view of the landscape as well as the static perspective of someone sittin’ on the dock of the Bay watching the tide roll away.

The pleasure of watching Cold Refuge — which provides a collage of inspiring characters, an irresistible bowl of eye candy for jaded locals and a timeless tribute to the revitalizing power of nature — consists of floating from vicarious observer of other folks’ shivery activities to experiencing their triumph and head-clearing submersion alongside them.

The cast includes cancer survivor and artist Zina Deretsky as well as Dr. Myles Cope, who was paralyzed from the waist down in a trench accident at 24. Nearly blind and deaf software engineer Corvin Bazgan swims tethered to a guide, while stressed-out employee benefits attorney Lisa Serebin serves as a stand-in for the overcommitted high achievers drowning (metaphorically) in details.

a man in a red shirt sits in a wheelchair with his back to the camera looking out at the bay
Dr. Myles Cope in a still from ‘Cold Refuge.’ (Courtesy Pelican Media)

Irving appears briefly in Cold Refuge, offscreen, to introduce each swimmer, and delivers a few choice observations at the end. Yet she’s fully present throughout, every frame dripping with her deep connection to her subjects. At the beginning of her career, she hired people to narrate her traditional short documentaries about Bay Area open space and wildlife.

The turning point was Dark Circle (1982), the Emmy-winning exposé she made with Christopher Beaver and Ruth Landy about the links between nuclear power and nuclear weapons. Irving wanted Ellen Burstyn to narrate, but the actress watched the cut and said, “You’re nuts. You have to narrate this thing.”

Next time around, Irving felt comfortable including herself in The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. “I ask pointed questions of Mark, off-screen, like, ‘Why don’t you get a job?’ and ‘Why don’t you cut your hair?’ And then we got together at the end.”

Irving’s docs serve as personal expressions in another way: she subconsciously put her late grandfather’s passions in three of them. The filmmaker grew up in New Jersey and spent summers with her family on the north fork of Long Island at her grandparents’ house. “He was so important to my young life as a budding birder,” Irving recalls.

a harbor seal is seen poking its face out of blue water, following a swimmer in goggles and a swim cap
A curious seal follows a swimmer in ‘Cold Refuge.’ (Courtesy Pelican Media)

Irving’s four features, consequently, play like personal films, even though she isn’t the protagonist. It’s a delicate balance that doesn’t feel self-indulgent; to the contrary, her emotional investment in each story raises the stakes.

Irving came west in 1970 after working in Montreal trying to make a living as a freelance writer of magazine articles. She hitchhiked across the country and lived on the Queen Charlotte Islands in British Columbia in a hut on a raft for a bit before applying to Stanford’s master’s program in documentary. Irving notes that she made her thesis film in 1973, and this year marks her 50th anniversary behind the camera and the editing table.

While Irving has adapted and adjusted to the dramatic changes in technology across the decades, her values haven’t shifted. Nor has her ability to laugh at her quirks.

“I am one of the few people left in the world, probably, who does not have a cell phone,” Irving says. “I do not want a cell phone. I don’t want to spend my life looking at a screen, especially a small screen. The irony is that I make movies and people watch them on screens. So they’re watching a mediated experience that I’ve made for them. And I’m sorry about that,” Irving says, laughing, “but I’m a filmmaker.”

‘Cold Refuge’ premieres at 10 a.m. on Sunday, April 16 at the Fort Mason Center’s Cowell Theater (2 Marina Blvd., San Francisco) as part of the International Ocean Film Festival. More info and tickets here.

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