The Night the Blackbirds Fell (Short Film)

21 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

As tough as it is to admit, something a lot of people will be curious about every New Year’s Eve is whether or not thousands of birds will suddenly drop in Beebe, Arkansas. Ever since Beebe made international news in January 2011, when more than 3,000 red-winged blackbirds fell from the sky and roughly 85,000 drum fish were washed up along the Arkansas River shore, it drew concern and investigation afterwards, even when it happened again in the beginning of 2012.

These mysterious bird & fish deaths are the topic of the 40-minute documentary, “The Night the Blackbirds Fell.”

Directed by Will Scott and written by Brian C. Campbell and Gustav Carlson, “The Night the Blackbirds Fell” presents the investigation of these mysterious animal deaths in a crafty, entertaining way. It uses a mix of sketch drawings and computer animation to present fictional characters looking up real-life media coverage, documenting first-hand testimony and explanation, and connecting theories and facts together to gain answers. It’s an interesting narrative flow, as the animated characters dig deeper into the mystery surrounding what killed the birds and the fish.

It begins as Danny (voiced by Matt Duncan), a university student developing a thesis project, walks alone from a New Year’s Eve 2010 party when he comes across a fallen blackbird, which he names Virgil, before encountering a shower of falling birds. As he watches TV and laughs at the jokes made by Jon Stewart and SNL, he quickly realizes how serious it is when he watches news coverage of the strange phenomenon. He decides to create a website as his thesis project, called “The Night the Blackbirds Fell,” as he investigates the wildlife deaths and adds new interview footage to the site.

Among the interviewees are Beebe residents, scientists, roost landowners, and anyone else who has an opinion on what happened and how it happened. It seems that everyone has their own theory as to how the blackbirds fell and how thousands of drum fish were washed ashore. Oil, toxins, military conspiracies, roost relocations, fireworks, and even, the grand consensus given by the media, the beginning of the End Times (I’m surprised Harold Camping wasn’t mentioned at all during this). You name it, someone has thought of it. It’s a puzzle that Danny must piece together as he (and the actual documentary crew) research and visit these different places and people, including a nuclear power plant and a Wal-Mart where a birds’-thicket once was (that’s a nice environmental message there). There are also two interviewees that give some input and who only agreed to be a part of the documentary if their faces and names were never revealed (one of them has his voice changed in post-production). One of them claims to know “who” killed the blackbirds.

Are the bird deaths and the fish deaths connected? Danny believes so, but Betty isn’t so sure. “The Night the Blackbirds Fell” has a clever mix of fiction and documentation with the mixture of interview footage and scripted animated sequences. The animated scenes are presented with a certain quirkiness that works well for the most part. Sometimes it’s funny when Danny and Betty’s reactions to most of these are about the same as the audience’s, and Betty’s snide commentary works for comedic effect. But other times it can seem a little forced, like an educational TV special, particularly when the film cuts back to the two and they recap on the footage they just watched. Mostly, however, it’s engaging enough to keep your attention. Some of the lines are good too—I love when Danny watches the SNL Weekly Update that shows Andy Samberg as a “lone-survivor blackbird” (with a heavy Southern accent), and reacts laughingly, “He sounds like my aunt!” And I admit it was a cute idea to have the bird, Virgil, as the “Lassie” of the situation, always pointing Danny towards important clues.

There are two shots that stay with me after seeing this documentary. One is a beginning wide shot that features the Beebe roost landowner, Lee Hayes, standing in the middle of the land and watching thousands of birds flying around. Another is an ending shot of more birds flying near a McDonald’s arch pole. These shots speak volumes as they indicate the possible extinction of blackbirds, as well as environmental threats to nature and people in Arkansas. It’s as if the film is saying that we need to rethink our connection with wildlife and by the end, it challenges us to consider the way things are now and how they may turn out to be in the future, especially if we’re going to keep checking on Beebe every year and see if more of these incidents occur, without actually contemplating them.

“The Night the Blackbirds Fell” is a well-crafted, intriguing film that entertains with the graphic-novel-style segments, involves/educates with the documentary aspects, and leaves the viewer thinking about it afterwards.

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