Sixty years ago, America's largest woodpecker became extinct. Five years ago, it was pronounced by scholars to be alive and well in a swamp near Brinkley, Arkansas. Last year, Bay Area filmmaker Scott Crocker made a documentary about how people took that news.
They took it by turning the bird into a cottage industry. Brinkley was transformed. Birders flocked in from all corners. The government diverted funds from other bird-conservation efforts to restoring the woodpecker's habitat. Then came a closer look at the plumage, and a questioning of the evidence: What if what actually had been captured for half a second on that accidental amateur video was a pileated woodpecker, not an ivory-billed woodpecker? Well, that would be a big deal too, as the former is not thought to be extinct.
Most people seem to agree that a live ivory-billed woodpecker would be a sight to see. Its lore records the nickname "Lord God Bird" on account of some awestruck spectator once having said that upon witnessing one. Also: "Elvis in Feathers." It is easy enough to understand how an obsessive subculture might spring up around such a creature.
Ghost Bird is the name of Crocker's film, at last making its Bay Area premiere this week, and of course that gets at the heart of the matter too. What does it mean if it's really still alive? What does it mean if we can't admit it isn't? As one of Crocker's interviewees points out, the real story of the Arkansas ivory-bill sighting is "a debate of hope versus skepticism."
This is one of those documentaries that takes great advantage of previous journalism on its subject, adding essential context and complex emotional impact. Crocker calmly bears witness to the man-made erosion of natural habitat and scientific rigor, and what emerges is the wistful sense of that which true Americana consists: obtuse environmental degradation, followed by a commerce of nostalgic delusion, followed by a mindful striving for regeneration. It's as much about nature as about human nature.
Also with brief appearances by Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster and Donald Rumsfeld.
Ghost Bird screens Thursday, December 16, 2010, at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco, and Sunday, December 19, 2010, at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, with director Scott Crocker in attendance both evenings. For tickets and information, visit ghostbirdmovie.com.