You wouldn’t think much of Kathy Murphy’s collection of feathered friends at the start of “For the Birds,” nor did anyone else in the humble township of Warwarsing in upstate New York. A video recording is made of Murphy handling her first baby chick, followed by another with a box full of six baby ducks, but by the time you see an entire shed in the back, the consumer grade video has shifted to more professional quality, a sign that Kathy’s husband Gary no longer sees a new addition to the flock as special enough to pick up the camera himself or the fact that Kathy has built up such a huge hoard of birds in such a small place that people have alerted the proper authorities.
In Richard Miron’s riveting debut feature, it is said often that Kathy is an animal lover, but in spending five years with her, you question whether that’s a compliment as you see her devotion has cost all others in her life, not to mention herself. Once a report is filed with the Ulster County SPCA Animal Police, a tug of war ensues over the custody of her 150-plus birds, which range from ducks, geese, roosters and even turkeys. At first, it’s quite funny to see Gary turn the radio on to get to sleep, blaring Bob Dylan, so the squawking of roosters won’t bother him in the morning after working a night shift. But over the course of the years, you see not only his health deteriorate, but also Kathy’s beloved pets since the different species of birds, all penned in together have different needs and introduce different viruses such as ringworm to one another.
Miron was actually a grad student when embarking on the production for a planned thesis film on animal welfare when he came across Kathy’s story and there’s an initial rawness that feels indicative of that fact, with the film ironically growing more elegant as times get tougher for the Murphys and Kathy is incapable of letting her birds be placed at other homes by an animal sanctuary in Woodstock. But overall, Miron and editor Jeffrey Star develop an unusually sophisticated narrative in which the motives of all involved are constantly questioned -and respected – as Kathy’s stubbornness starts looking a lot less like love for her birds than neglect and selfishness. Gary suggests the birds are a way to inoculate herself from the outside world, a charge that isn’t unfounded as Kathy calls the birds her children while not literally calling her human daughter on the phone, and the film tactfully deals with the issue of mental health in more insightful ways than most film’s devoted to the subject can muster.
While offering a compelling character study of Kathy, as well as other fascinating people in her life including her lawyer William Brenner, a tax attorney by trade, and Sheila Hyslop, a member of the sanctuary staff clearly troubled by the task of taking the birds away from Kathy, it is Miron’s instinct to keep traveling to Warwarsing after the eventual court case has resolved that yields the most rewards. The film marks one of those exciting moments when you realize that for as an unbelievable true story unfolds before your eyes, it’s as remarkable, if not more so, that the right film crew was around to do it justice and it’s wonderful to see “For the Birds” truly take flight.
“For the Birds” will next play in New York at DOC NYC on November 10th. A full list of future screenings is here.