For centuries, birds have served as messengers for humanity — as carriers of important communications during both World Wars, as harbingers of death in coal mines. According to Su Rynard’s provocative and beautiful documentary The Messenger, today’s songbirds are delivering us a message of global proportion: Modernity is killing them, and if we don’t do something soon, it might destroy us, too.
The film introduces scientists researching songbirds around the world, from the fields of Saskatchewan to the mountains of Turkey. These countries share modern ways of life — pesticide use, deforestation due to agriculture and oil fracking, noise and light pollution — that are killing songbirds. And as songbird populations drop, the world’s ecosystems are thrown off balance, affecting the well-being of other species, including humans.
New York City proves to be a particular problem. In one of the film’s most troubling scenes, a group of scientists spend the night of September 11 beneath the blazing spotlights memorializing the twin towers. The date falls during the songbirds’ peak migration period through the area, and the lights distract them from their natural migratory route. As thousands of songbirds circle the lights in a downward spiral, a scientist shouts to a colleague that the lights need to be turned off — immediately — to save the birds’ lives. The colleague hesitates — it’s the twin-towers memorial on the anniversary of 9-11 — but powers them down.
Here the film makes clear its central conflict: We harness modernity as much for its triumph over darkness and silence as for its convenience, but our insistence that it dominate our lives is killing some of Earth’s most fragile creatures. So what to do? The filmmakers, like the songbirds they advocate for, are only messengers, but their message is persuasive and terrifying.
Directed by Su Rynard
Opens December 4, Cinema Village