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Review: 'Birders: The Central Park Effect' on HBO

July 16, 2012|By Robert Lloyd | Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • Veteran birdwatcher Starr Saphir is featured in the HBO documentary "Birders: The Central Park Effect."
Veteran birdwatcher Starr Saphir is featured in the HBO documentary "Birders:… (Michael Loccisano/Getty…)

It may have been that I was more than usually sleep-deprived when I watched Jeffrey Kimball's "Birders: The Central Park Effect" (premiering tonight on HBO, Monday at 9, with replays on July 19, 21, 24 and 29, check your listings), but I found myself repeatedly on the edge of tears over its course. It is a relatively short but luxurious film about birds and the people who watch them, and the way that nature finds a place in the city, and in its citizens. There is a little bit of science sprinkled along the way, and a very little bit of background about the park itself, but mostly there are the birds and the birders, of whom the director is one himself.

I don't know a grackle from a nuthatch, and I'm not 100% sure that either of those is in fact a bird, but I can get plenty worked up over a blue jay on the fence or a hummingbird at the feeder or any little bright-colored thing I don't recognize stopping for a bath at the fountain; even the sight here of pigeons nesting in a shelf in a park bridge strikes me as unspeakably lovely. (Sorry? It's just something in my eye, that's all.)

Bought by the network on the strength of a SXSW showing, this is not the first documentary on the wildlife of Central Park and the creatures that have colonized its engineered yet actual wilderness, but it is an especially sensitive and vibrant one. The film is arranged as a turning year, from spring to spring -- though Kimball spent four years shooting to collect his images: of some 200 species of birds seen every year in the park -- both migrants passing through and full-time residents -- 117 make an appearance here.

The humans (including literary face of birdwatching Jonathan Franzen) are not quite as spectacularly varied as the birds, but they are a more various group than you might imagine, coming in different sizes and sexes, ages and shapes and colors and apparent degrees of hipness or geekiness. Everyone we meet has something sweet and often penetrating to say about what they do, but most tread as lightly through the film as through the park; we know them only in their relation to the birds, "so alive, active, varied and beautiful" in the words of one young watcher.

Even when the most celebrated among them, septuagenarian Starr Saphir, who makes more or less of a living running bird tours through the park, receives a diagnosis of terminal cancer, neither she nor Kimball makes it a point of great drama. It's all nature; the birds provide perspective, she says, and a way out of herself. (She is, by the way, still birding.)

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