The status of songbirds worldwide provides another barometer for measuring unsettling ecological changes in “The Messenger.” Su Rynard’s feature, with its episodic overview of various interconnected issues around the globe, lacks the unifying emotional and narrative involvement of the best nature documentaries. But it’s an informative journey sure to appeal in particular to birdwatchers when Kino Lorber launches its U.S. theatrical release on Dec. 4. Tube sales should be hale in numerous territories.
This cinematic survey roams the planet to highlight various songbird-related issues, invariably checking in with scientific experts and other interested parties en route. We learn about Toronto activists who’ve drastically cut collision deaths by placing small markers on mirrored or clear-glass building surfaces that birds otherwise can’t perceive; a fight between hunters and preservationists over the ortolan bunting, still a culinary delicacy despite its trapping being declared illegal in 1999; and monitors at a 9/11 memorial in New York, making sure that a temporary light sculpture doesn’t confuse birds at the height of migration season.
It’s estimated that about 20 billion birds migrate each year, of which roughly half survive; some succumb to predators like domestic cats, typed here as an “invasive species” that have upset ecological balances everywhere they’ve been introduced. We see the impact of drastic deforestation in Costa Rica, where only 15% of forest lands that existed in 1945 remain today, and note the result of Mao’s 1957 “Four Pests” campaign, which eliminated tree sparrows to save grain — only to find that the insects they were no longer around to consume then devoured crops, triggering an eventual 30 million human deaths.
Elsewhere, climate change-induced drought shrinks bird habitats in Turkey, while worldwide manmade noise makes it increasingly difficult for birds to communicate, creating another means of avian population decrease. In addition to input from researchers, activists, farmers and others, we also drop in on Dominik Eulberg, a German composer/DJ who interpolates birdsong and other natural sounds in dance tracks.
As has long been noted, our feathered friends often provide “canary in a coal mine” early warnings as to the impacts and perils of environmental changes — and the dramatic shifts in their populations and behaviors over recent decades is ominous indeed. Still, “The Messenger” is more diverting than urgent, never sticking with a theme or character long enough to impress the significance of its ideas as powerfully as perhaps they deserve.
The pro package’s most distinctive stylistic aspect is the recurrent shots of birds flying in slow-motion against pure-black backgrounds, shot in an avian research center’s artificial wind tunnel (which scientists use to closely study bird aerodynamics). Phil Strong’s original score alternates between Philip Glass-like instrumental passages and ethereal female choral interludes.