Movie Review: “The Lord God Bird,” Documentary

I remember how energized I felt after the 2005 announcement by Cornell Ornithologists that they’d spotted an Ivory Billed Woodpecker in the Big Woods of Eastern Arkansas.

Like most “outdoor types” in the state, I was excited for several reasons. I was excited about the possibility of conserving more wilderness, I was thrilled that our woods were getting some serious scientific attention. But more than anything, I was excited about the very fact that a lost species had been refound right in the middle of North America.

I have to confess on the outset that I’m a believer. There are, apparently, two minds on the Ivory Bill issue. When we sat down in our seats at the Riverdale 10 Theater on a Sunday morning to watch “The Lord God Bird,” a documentary about the discovery and search for the Ivory Bill at the Little Rock Film Fest recently a gregarious woman sat next to me. She immediately asked, “So, are you two believers?”

I had to confess. “I am!” I said. I pointed at my husband. “He’s not.” The gregarious lady was thrilled. “That’s exactly our situation! I’m a believer and he’s not,” she said pointing at her own husband. Our quarrel, like the scientific debate still raging on the rediscovery of the Ivory Bill, rests on a short, blurry video tape shot by a UALR professor.

In a way, our status as believers in the current evidence is sort of the center of George Butler’s “The Lord God Bird.” It focuses on three intersecting narratives. First, it tells the story of John Dennis, the ornithologist who championed the possibility of Ivory Bill existence for all of his adult life, despite the scorn heaped upon him by the ornithological world. Second, it examines the story of the 2004 sighting that started the search and resulted in that disputed video tape (and its aftermath).

Finally, it examines the place of the Ivory Bill in our collective imagination, first for their mysterious vanishing (one graduate student in the film talks about the bird as a kind of “ghost”), and then as a symbol of the tenacity of nature.

As a believer, I’m happy to say that “The Lord God Bird” definitely angles in favor of the Cornell lab’s interpretation of the evidence. While it does present a differing interpretation of the facts, more time is spent detailing the “believers'” interpretation. The director encourages the audience to see Cornell’s interpretation as the triumph of an underdog by contrasting it with John Dennis’s story.

George Butler’s examination of local attitudes about the discovery was mostly fair. He made the point that I think is a legitimate concern for landowners in the Big Woods area. There’s a scene where Butler follows a trio of duck hunters who stress that they’re thrilled some of the land might be conserved, they just don’t want their own land taken away from them.

That why, the hunters said, that if they found an Ivory Bill on their own land, they wouldn’t tell anyone about it. I thought this said a lot about Arkansas, actually. Arkansas supports conservation insomuch as it supports the right to hunt and use land. It’s support mostly stops when there’s any sort of government mandates involved. It’s exactly what I think most folks around here would do too.

Butler’s examination of the history of the Ivory Bill in the U.S. included some wonderful moments, especially with his interviews with Nancy Tanner, the wife of Ornithologist Jim Tanner, who first refuted John Dennis’s claims to an Ivory Bill sighting in the Big Thicket in Texas during the 1960’s.

I was, I must admit, thrilled to see that Butler included story of how the Arkansas Canoe Club message board launched the whole current Ivory Bill search. A guarded post about the original sighting in 2004 by a ACC regular member Gene Sparling made its way via e-mail and introduction to Cornell, and eventually, to the sightings in Arkansas. I hope this is a sign that environmental groups, scientists, and outdoor sports advocates are starting to learn from one another. It’s definitely true in this case.

“The Lord God Bird,” is worth watching if it comes to a film fest near you. It’s just out of production and made one its earliest screenings of the finished product at the Little Rock Film Fest. Generally Butler does a balanced job of presenting the rediscovery and the current controversy surrounding it. However, if you’re a hard-core skeptic, this one might do more to push your buttons than inform you.


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    […] seaching for sasquatch and the like John Trapp – a birder (post includes a trailer of the film) Hillbilly M.F.A. – an Arkansas nature […]

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