What is Judy Irving doing?

Samstag, 7. November 2015 | 

Schlagwörter »  |  Thema: 2015-3, Allgemein, englisch, Newsletter, Was macht eigentlich?

Judy Irving studied at the University of Freiburg in 1967 as a participant in the IES Abroad program. After completing her bachelor’s degree in psychology at Connecticut College and a master’s in film and broadcasting at Stanford University, USA, she began her career as a documentary film director. 

The Sundance and Emmy Award-winning director’s works include the documentary The Dark Circle which deals with the drawbacks of the nuclear industry. Her well known film The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill portrays the relationship between a homeless street musician and a swarm of wild parrots in the center of San Francisco. In her most recent film, Pelican Dreams, she accompanies the pelican “Gigi” from her emergency landing on the Golden Gate Bridge to a pelican sanctuary and back into the wilderness. Alumni’Aktuell spoke with Judy Irving about her studies, her time in Freiburg, and her current film.

Judy Irving und Pelikan "Gigi"
Judy Irving and pelican “Gigi” (Foto: Mark Bittner)

Alumni’Aktuell: How did you get from psychology to film? When did you know that you wanted to make films?

Judy Irving: At the time I studied Psychology, Behaviorism was “in”. My professors urged me to go to graduate school but I wasn’t interested in stimulus/response rat research. From 1969 to 1971 as a freelance nonfiction writer. But it was difficult. I started taking photographs to accompany my articles, and from still photography became interested in movie-making. Someone lent me a wind-up 16mm Bolex and I shot a few scenes; it was thrilling.


Alumni: How have your studies impacted your films?

Irving: Cultural forces, rather than my studies, had the most impact on my films – the dawning environmental movement, the peace (anti-nuclear) movement, and feminism. That said, I’m sure “Tiefen Psychologie” helped me become a better interviewer! Gestalt psychology correlates with how I’ve come to view the world: humans and other species in an environment, not humanity in an urban vacuum.


Alumni: How do you balance your career and personal life? How do they relate?

Irving: I don’t think of myself as having a career, really, as opposed to a personal life. They are completely intertwined. For example, I made a film about Mark Bittner and his relationship with a flock of wild parrots in San Francisco. By the end of the film we “became a pair.” Now we’re married, living on Telegraph Hill next door to where he lived in the movie, taking care of two “rescue parrots” from the wild flock.


Alumni: Where do you get the ideas for your films?

Pelikan "Gigi auf der Golden Gate Brücke
Pelikan “Gigi” on the Golden Gate Brücke (Foto: Stuart Jones)

Irving: The ideas come from what’s going on around me. For example, “Dark Circle,” a film I made about the nuclear industry, came about because I read that Karen Silkwood had been doused with plutonium, then killed, to silence her testimony about unsafe conditions at the nuclear facility where she worked. She and I were the same age. Her story haunted me.

“The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill” got started when two friends told me, “You’ve got to make a movie about that guy who feeds the parrots.” They told me this because I’d already made a lot of movies with birds in them. And they were right! It turned out to be about a lot more than a guy feeding parrots. It changed my life, and was my most successful film.

I’d wanted to make “Pelican Dreams” for many years, and I’d actually started it before the parrot movie. Once the parrots were flying out in the world, I could get back to it. My interest in pelicans came from my grandfather, as you’ll see in the film.


Alumni: What did you do on your IES program in Freiburg? What did you study? What was your day to day life?

Irving: We had a heavy load of tutorials prior to and in addition to classes at the university, to try to help us make it through. I stayed at the Thomas Morus Burse and rode a bicycle or took the streetcar to town. I studied Ontologie, Musikgeschichte, Tiefenpsychologie, Marchen (Grimm’s fairy tales), Sprechkunde, und Personlichkeit. I remember feeling completely out of my depth, especially in Ontologie: Kant – Erscheinungen, Kritik der Reinen Vernunft; Heidegger – das sein und das seiende — or was it Dasein? (English only has one word for “being”); Nietsche – “das Weib ist noch nicht einmal flach” (not a big fan of Nietsche!), etc. I had to read “Was ist Metaphysik?” but I doubt I understood much. I memorized pieces of classical music for the test in Musikgeschichte.

My day-to-day life was not all study, though; we took walks along the Dreisam, hiked in Schauinsland and in the forests, visited castles and cathedrals and went to the Bodensee, and visited our beloved tutor and his wife, Wolfgang und Ingrid Möller.


Alumni: You seem to be particularly interested in Films about animals. Did you always want to make films about animals or did your interest naturally find its way into your career?

Irving: I’ve made films about the nuclear issue, about micro-credit banks in Nepal, land redistribution in Zimbabwe, African-American vegetable farmers in Arkansas, and so on. The relationship between people and wild animals is an interest that has developed slowly over the years. When I was a child, my grandfather helped me learn about and become fascinated by birds. Then for decades the interest waned, but it has come back now. Birds are the only other species that people can see and get to know in cities, where most of us now live. Animals deserve respect and attention – far more than they get in our human-centered world view in which homo sapiens is the center of the universe. As I write this “Big Bird” is sitting on my shoulder, squawking. She agrees.


Ein Pelikan im Park in San Francisco (Foto: Stephen McLaren)
A pelican walking through a park in San Francisco (Foto: Stephen McLaren)

Alumni: What got you interested in making non-profit films/documentaries instead of films for profit?

Irving: I’m a documentarian at heart: I’ve been keeping a journal since I was 13, and I like nonfiction. So that pretty much precludes making big bucks as a filmmaker. In my case, the only film that did well financially was “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill” (it’s still too early to tell with “Pelican Dreams”), and it was a relief to have a few years without constant hustling to raise funds. But nobody gets into documentary filmmaking for the money, so I’m not complaining.

Documentary films are often unscripted, with real people, and they can take a long time to finish (4-5 years is not unusual for a feature documentary). If you’re trying to tell a true story, why fake it? I like to wait for the perfect shot. It’s one of my favorite things about wildlife filmmaking. You calm down. Sights, sounds, textures, and patterns reveal themselves as you wait. I don’t feel that it requires patience, because it’s a joy. You’re away from what’s fake (so much of urban life) and you’re in the presence of what’s real.


Alumni: Where did you get the idea to do this film? Did you already know you wanted to make a film about Pelicans or was Gigi’s landing on the bridge the original inspiration?

Irving: That incident provided the opening hook that I’d been waiting for years. I’d shot a few film rolls on pelicans before The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill took over my life. After Parrots, I decided it was time to start work on the movie I’d always wanted to make about pelicans. I didn’t want it to be a science documentary or a standard educational film. I wanted to take a story-telling approach—make it more personal or poetic. But I had no idea what that meant or how I would find my structure. Gigi stopping traffic gave me my beginning.


Alumni: How did you first hear about Gigi, the pelican?

Irving: A friend of mine was in the pelican-caused traffic jam on the Golden Gate Bridge, and she emailed me. I called bridge police, found out where the bird had been taken, and started filming. Mark Bittner, my husband, searched the internet over the next few days and found a Youtube video of the pelican standoff on the bridge, complete with the bird’s “arrest.” I got permission to use the video from the bicyclist who shot it, and it became the opening scene in the movie.

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