Kestrel’s Eye (review)

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My Life as a Bird

There’s an extreme branch of environmentalist thought that asserts that humans are interlopers in the natural world, that we do nothing but despoil the innate goodness of our planet when we tramp into the woods. Certainly, some of us have demonstrated complete disregard for the well-being of the creatures with whom we share this world. But some of us also forget that we are not removed from nature but a part of it, that we are just creatures, too.

An extraordinary reminder of our place in the world comes in the form of an intimate documentary from Swedish filmmaker Mikael Kristersson. Kestrel’s Eye follows a pair of smallish gray-and-brown falcons through the course of most of a year as they nest in a 13th-century church on the fringes of suburban Sweden. Kestrel’s Eye isn’t like any nature film you’ve ever seen on The Discovery Channel or PBS — Kristersson doesn’t distract us with narration or background music. This isn’t about humans observing birds and reporting on what they see — this is about learning to see the world from the viewpoint of a kestrel.
A nook in the brickwork of this old church serves the mating pair of kestrels as home, and a nearby ledge is a nice place to watch the world go by. Kristersson’s cameras never look up at the church from ground level — instead, cameras hidden (so as not to disturb the birds) inside the hidey-hole and around the roof let us see the world from above. We go with the kestrels on hunts (thanks to long-range lenses), hovering patiently over the meadow next to the church, then sweeping down to snare a small rodent or lizard for lunch. Watching a kestrel de-fur a field mouse before digging in is amazing — but then, so is listening to the kestrels argue over who gets the last piece. The birds’ expressive twittering to each other leaves no doubt that they’re communicating.

The kestrels share other chores beside hunting. It is springtime, and one day we discover, inside the nest, an egg, a mottled, red-speckled little thing. They keep making babies: Two, three, eventually six eggs fill the nest, and mom and dad take turns sitting on the eggs, keeping them warm. Fuzzy hatchlings soon appear, six new hungry mouths to feed.

This up-close-and-personal examination of the lives of this kestrel family would be fascinating enough, but Kristersson also turns his cameras out, away from the church, for the kestrels’ take on the people around them that becomes almost a bird’s documentary about the mysterious behavior of humans. As we watch the kestrels’ family be born and develop, we also see their view on humans’ passages of life — they witness, from their rooftop perches, parts of a funeral, a wedding, and a confirmation ceremony. But it’s the everyday things that are the most absorbing, oddly enough. A woman vacuums an outbuilding of the church; people tend the graveyard; a man walks a dog; a woman rides a bike. Parents with children start to look less like “people” and more like other creatures with their young; houses start to look like nothing else but elaborate nests. By the time a cemetery groundskeeper’s cell phone rings, we’re so attuned to not hearing the world through human ears that the phone sounds like birds singing — and because few of us outside Sweden understand Swedish, the man’s voice as he answers the phone is no more comprehensible to us than it is to the birds who are eavesdropping.

At several points in Kestrel’s Eye, the falcons listen to human music — choral songs from the church, marching band tunes from a passing parade — and they seem to enjoy it, bobbing their heads up and down in time to it. Whether they find it relaxing — as we tend to find birdsong — we’ll never know. But we can plainly see that the kestrels treat the sounds we make — from the shouts of children at play to the roar of airplanes above — with exactly the same measure of interest as they react to the sounds of other animals and birds. To the kestrels, we are no better and no worse than the rest of nature, not above it or transcending it, but merely another part of it.

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