‘Bird Island’ Filmmakers Lift Documentary Approach With Fictional Elements

'Bird Island' Filmmakers Lift Documentary Style With Flights of Fancy
Courtesy of Close Up Films

Some of the most vibrant documentaries in recent years have been those that have deliberately blurred the lines that typically separate fiction from reality, and in this, Lisbon-based Swiss filmmaking duo Sergio da Costa and Maya Kosa’s “L’Île aux oiseaux” (“Bird Island”) is no exception. Selected as part of Locarno Festival’s Concorso Cineasti del presente, the sidebar program focusing on new talent, “L’Île aux oiseaux” is a graceful, hand-stitched portrait of a small Edenic bird center in Geneva, and their quiet employees who carry out their respective daily tasks with monastic devotion.

The idea for the film was planted when da Costa found a wounded bird while walking in his native Geneva sometime in 2013. He googled for a local bird clinic and found one, and immediately became enamored with it. “The center stayed in my mind,” recalls da Costa, who later decided to go back with Kosa and make a film about the particular environment. It was Kosa who proposed that they add a fictional element to the documentary nature of the film. “We looked at the people in the center and were interested in their potential as fiction characters,” Kosa says. “We asked ourselves, ‘how do we transform what we see without erasing the truth from it?’”

In the film, all of the purported characters play themselves. Sandrine is the center’s all-purpose guardian. Emilie is the resident surgeon. And Paul, one of the older workers, is in charge of taking care of the rats that will eventually be cut up and diced for the birds to feast on. And this is where the fiction component enters the picture. With Paul leaving the center, he is tasked with training the somewhat diffident Antonin, the film’s only ostensible actor… in real life, he is a film student.

In many respects, “L’Île aux oiseaux” would appear to be no more than a well-conceived zoological documentary, were it not, that is, for the fact of the film’s persistent use of a spare, impersonal voiceover told from Antonin’s perspective. Through the voiceover, Antonin speculates on the thoughts and feelings of his otherwise silent co-workers, giving the film a novelistic air. Influenced by Robert Bresson’s “The Diary of a Country Priest,” and by the films of Marguerite Duras, da Costa and Kosa envisioned a work that moves between artifice and reality with no clear demarcations.

“The idea of having a voiceover we wanted right from the beginning,” says Kosa. “We asked Antonin everyday after the shoot to write a diary of his experiences [as in the Bresson film], of how his day went, etc., and that served as the basis to write the voiceover in the end. That’s why the voiceover is very rich and literary and not naturalistic.”

Another quality that gives “L’Île aux oiseaux” its fable-like qualities is the shape of the frame, a square vignette in which the edges are rounded. Da Costa, who is also the film’s DP, says he selected the vignette form “because the houses in the region are kind of a square shape and I wanted it to fit the architecture of the area.”

“The square shape also lent itself to a portrait style that allowed us to shoot animals in a way that had not been done before by simple nature documentaries. It’s more picturesque and the squareness seems to capture the action and the essence of the animals.”

Underpinning the “L’Île aux oiseaux’s” buoyancy is a wary concern for the environmental crisis of our time. At one point in the film, Antonin observes that “the birds were no longer able to adapt to a world that was no longer made for them.”

“We didn’t want to make an ornithological film,” states Kosa, who claims that Switzerland has lost over 60% of their native bird population in the past 30 years,” but we wanted to get this point across as a fictional tale. The ecological aspect was important but we wanted to keep it as a mystery, not a direct threat that is in the air somewhere. The wounds that the birds have embody the threat from the outside world.”

[The article’s writers are participants in the Locarno Festivals’ Critics Academy.]