FAQs on Night Parrot Stories
11 July 2016
What attracted you to create a film on the night parrot?
The Night Parrot did not come into my life as an idea for a film. Since Night Parrots went missing 100 years ago the bird has developed an enduring, if obscure, fame. I cast my mind back. For reasons I can not now remember I found myself in the “Gould League of Bird Lovers” in Albury Primary School. Was that how I came to be interested in birds ? I had first heard of the Night Parrot when I worked in Western Queensland in the early 1980s. Night. Parrot. It is an unusual word association. My bird book indicated it was "Probably Extinct”.
I did not think about the bird for many years, until I read John Kinsella’s collection of poems entitled ‘Night Parrot’. There were imagined conversations between Lasseter, the doomed gold seeker, and Nebuchadnezzar, a Babylonian King who had a run-in with God. In the poems the Night Parrots are the only sane witnesses. Later I spoke about the Night Parrot to a friend, who had been in the desert looking for them. He thought he may have even heard one, though its call (and it’s photographic image) had never been recorded or scientifically documented. Incidentally this is one of the affective traits of the Night Parrot. It has the ability to occupy a negative space. A trained ear assumes it is a Night Parrot by excluding all other known calls. There is no recorded call to compare it to, and a cloak of darkness prevents any direct link.
My friend lent me a book called "Horse of Air" by Dal Stivens, about a mad search for the Night Parrot. Another trait of the ‘Night Parrot affect’ was revealed; any story of the Night Parrot has a sub text of obsession and pursuit.
I had just finished Memoirs of a Plague, about the Locusts, and was casting around for an eponymous character for a cinematic essay film. The Night Parrot, as a film idea, was a great excuse for an adventure so I applied for film development funds from Screen Australia. In 2013 they gave me enough money to fund a research expedition to Western Queensland, the Northern Territory and South Australia. The premise of my research was that the Night Parrot was “the Thylacine of the air”, a mythical creature which had ‘inspired many great but highly unsuccessful ornithological adventures’.
In the course of undertaking research for the film the Night Parrot miraculously reappeared, making front page headlines around the world. Good news, but I thought its rediscovery spelt an end to my film project. The bird was not a winged Thylacine. It really existed and Science, funded by Capitalism, stepped in to take over its narrative - a large mining company paid the folk who found her to do secret research and I had no access to the story of her resurrection. I could not let her go at that, though surely the Night Parrot now had her dramatic ending. A beloved lost object had been found. But who was the Night Parrot to be returned to?
The story of the attraction between a filmmaker and their subject inevitably changes over time. At first one knows nothing, except there is a glimmer in the corner of your eye. This glimpse magically takes over your life, in the same way any relationship develops I suppose. And so it was that the Night Parrot kept recurring in my life, until I too, in my own filmmakerly way, became obsessed with it.
What is the symbolism of the night parrot within Indigenous communities, literary mentions and museums?
I am not sure the Night Parrot is symbolic for Indigenous people. It is not a famous ancestral being, but its character makes an interesting cameo. The Night Parrot is a sentinel creature in the libretto of the Kangaroo Dreaming, as recorded by T.G Strehlow. In his “Songs of Central Australia” the Night Parrots stand guard over the Red Kangaroos and warn them of imminent danger. Aboriginal people, attuned to such things, would not have appreciated their nocturnal hunting being signalled to the Kangaroos by a pesky Night Parrot standing sentry. In the song the Night Parrots are never seen, only heard.
Many Aboriginal folk told me that you see the Night Parrot once only and never again. This being another trait of the Night Parrot. Encounters with the bird are always solitary, leaving the observer doubting their sensors. The behaviour seemed to fit with the name the early explorers gave the bird - “Solitaire”. I can understand why Night Parrots attracted the interest of artists, poets and writers. There are now many mentions of the Night Parrot in Western literature. Its character became more prominent in eco-poetics and art the more it was thought extinct. Certainly by the 1950s the Night Parrot had moved beyond the birding and scientific literature into Western artistic imaginings. Sidney Nolan, Xavier Herbert, Dorothy Porter, John Kinsella, Dal Stivens (his book on the Night Parrot, “Horse of Air”, won the 1970 Miles Franklin Award), Mandy Martin, Fiona Hall, Emma Lindsay, Linda Davies have all invoked the character and esoteric presence of the Night Parrot in their writing and art. The Night Parrot could be a signifier of many creatures on the cusp of extinction. I was not the first to draw an association between the the story of the Thylacine and the situation the Night Parrot finds itself in.
The stories of the specimens of the Night Parrot in museums are fascinating. The Australian Museum in Sydney even has a special room named “The Night Parrot Room”. Most of the 28 known specimens of the Night Parrot lack provenance, but it is possible to infer some threads from the waves of collected specimens. Fredrick Andrews was the only white person who could be reliably called upon to collect Night Parrots. He did this in the Gawler Rangers in South Australia in the 1870s. Little is know of the man, and how he came to collect Night Parrots, except that he probably had help from local Aboriginal people. The explorer, Stuart, shot the first specimen in South Australia in 1845 but there was a misnaming debacle which involved the famous taxonomist, Gould. The misnaming of things was pretty common back then, as there was a rush to assemble taxonomies and information travelled slowly. By the time folk realised this bird was special it became apparent that the Night Parrot was very hard to find and not very common at all. Lord Rothschild had taken two live specimens to England but they promptly died of the cold. Requests for more specimens could not be met. Two perfectly dead specimens were shown in Paris in the 1900 World Fair. In 1917 Campbell, in the Birds of Australia, confidently declared the bird gone. There was a paradox. It was evidently not extinct because it kept turning up dead. In 1990 one was found as road kill. Another in 2006 was found decapitated beneath a fence.
The music accompanying parts of Night Parrot Stories are nocturnes by Chopin. The nocturne, as a musical form, is a homage to the night.
How has the medium of film brought this specimen to life?
There is a fundamental question to ask before setting out to make a film…what will a moving picture camera bring to the idea ? If you stay true to what can only be observed - as observers of bird behaviour do - and then impose a form on the images and the observers' behaviour, then you are on your way to making a film. In this case a cinematic essay. There are many fine examples of ethnographic films that fulfil the charter of being truly only reproducible by thinking visually through a video camera. I like the dogma and the infinite complexity of that idea. Using film also imposes the passage of time. Time is one of the protagonists in the story of the Night Parrot.
There was one indelible apriori image that I brought to the making of the Night Parrot film. It is of Benjamin, the last of his Thylacine species, walking forever in circles, trapped in a cage of time, in the Hobart Zoo in 1930. For me it is one of the saddest, most abject scenes ever recorded on film. Benjamin was always going to be up near the front of what ever film I made on the Night Parrot.
The embodiment of knowledge creation, in the form of specimens as objects, was definitely going into the film, so the art of taxidermy is presented in graphic detail. In the same way specimens are collected, catalogued and preserved for the future, a picture of the Night Parrot emerges by piecing together disparate records and stories of encounters.
Other aspects of a missing character can be portrayed by framing their absence with the places that once surrounded them. I use folk who may have an interest in the missing character to paint aa Night Parrot shaped silhouette. In effect I use its absence, its capacity to not be there, to make the film. It is the interest and obsessions of others that we are witnessing. When I set out to make the film there were no photographs of the bird.
The other framing device is my own search through the fragmented natural history archives of the world. The environmental philosopher Donna Haraway memorably said ”nothing comes without its world”. In her words I found an entreaty to seek out places where the Night Parrot once existed.… characters, situations, encounters. Through visiting these places I thought I could perhaps conjure the Night Parrot's existence in ways other than actually clapping eyes on it.
I think two things rescue the film from such filmic conceits. Firstly there is my own stumbling presence. For reasons I cant quite say, I find contingent reality a surreal and whimsical object when it is documented on film.
Secondly there was one simple, profound interview. I had worked for several months, over two years, filming in all the locations where the Night Parrot had once been found. Towards the end of filming I recorded a wonderful story from Geoffrey Stewart, a Traditional Owner of the country to the north of Wiluna in the Gibson Desert. When the transcript from the Martu language came back I knew that Geoffrey’s story was important for the film. All filmmakers secretly obsess about Time. Below I include the time-code, in 25th of second increments, from part of the transcript of the video interview, to illustrate how a recording becomes an artefact for dissection.
Final Interview / Geoffrey Stewart / Carnarvon Ranges WA/ 5 August 2014
The two beings noticed a Whitchetty Bush over there…
1:25:26:17 …whose colour is brown, 1:25:30:23
and as these two beings were collecting Whitchetty grubs…1:25:35:00
they also searched for the night bird… 1:25:39:00
and as they cooked the grubs…1:25:42:02
other beings appeared…1:25:46:03
and so the two groups sat together and discussed… 1:25:51:01
and there was confusion here, there…1:25:56
all of them confused …for the bird could not be seen 1:25:58
and one said “It is not our place to find the bird ”… 1:26:04:22
and they never saw it again…
so its mad story is finished… 1:26:10:10
…finished… at that place of water 1:26:17:01
so the bird was banished to the darkness.
What do you hope the audience take away from the film?
The film can not be decoded as a linear natural history documentary. However many attending Night Parrot Stories will be expecting such a classic narrative, moderated by the unseen presence of the filmmaker. The form of Night Parrot Stories is an implicit critique of such approaches. Its fragmentation is deliberate. The film is intended to be read as a ‘gestalt’. I don't attempt to merely relay and explain current events. Films work best when they are partial, and it was my intention to create a mimetic affect…something that is felt beyond the intellect.
The loss we are witnessing is the connection between knowledge and meaning. It is disappearing from the very places where knowledge and meaning were originally generated. The remnants of behaviour, the situations, the places and characters (who remain unnamed) … are all in some way trying to understand their particular roll in the world and deal with loss. The images are accompanied by my own uncertain voice, as I too am trying to make sense of what it means to make a film on such a creature. In this way I hope the film provides an alternative perspective to the gaze of human exceptionalism. There is also a lot of Dark Matter in the film, and I leave it up to the audience to devise their own detection devices.
Embedded in the film is my interest in nostalgia as ‘form’, but this melancholic perspective is offset by whimsicalities. I crash into things. That is how life is for all of us, what the anthropologist filmmaker Lucian Casing-Taylor calls ‘the sensory and cognitive muddle’ of experience. Filmmaking, as life experience, is no different.
I have a secondary audience. The film is 60% of my practice based PhD. I am now trying to understand what on earth has been researched or answered, how new understandings have been generated by the process of making the film, the ‘artefact’ of the film itself, how it engages with a range of audiences and where it may sit in my own practice and against other films in the natural history genre. What is new here ?
If you would like to see Night Parrot Stories please let me know.
How is the Anthropocene reflected in the film?
The final scenes in the film cast my odyssey in the ‘longue durée ’. The audience is invited to step back from the film and view its meta frame - all that has taken place has occurred during a particular moment in geological time. The end of the Holocene.
A memorial plaque has been set down in the opening titles of the film. It commemorates an obscure passing. The film is positioned at the end of the Holocene. There is a fin de siècle feel. The tone and sentiments are nostalgic.
If the film was a fiction the directions to the art department would be to establish Night Parrot Stories in the “Anthropocene genre” ... they would read something like this:
‘The form of the film is to be established immediately. Images are to be mashed together as “remnants of my own behaviour”. The mise-en-scène should imply all these collected objects (my own images) end up in a repository of dusty knowledge, where they are curated and kept for all time. But the story of how the artefacts, the specimens of the Night Parrot, came to be there, and the process of their collection, are derived from a muddled world, full of personal encounters and responses…is unexplained. Cue the Thylacine, the saddest image imaginable.
Old world views underly this new world order. Contemporary ‘situations’ are never fully explained in the film. All we know is that they are found objects gleaned from a search. The aim is to portray a fragmented archive derived from a world in disarray.’
Is this a fuzzy vision of a clear reality or clear view of a fuzzy reality? Knowledge is being formed and lost in so many different ways. Even large modern satellite guided aircraft can go missing in the ocean. So it is no wonder a little Night Parrot is a tricky beast to track down.The notion of a looming presence, the Anthropocene, book ends the film. Is the Night Parrot the Jiminy Cricket of the Anthropocene?’
Where will it be screening over the next few months?
There will be screenings of Night Parrot Stories in Albury, Sydney, Canberra and other regional towns over the coming months. You can click here to see where the film is screening next. I would like to conduct Q and A screenings for film and extinction studies folk at Universities. Please be in touch if you are interested in holding a screening and a Q and A in your University or Museum. Click here to contact Robert Nugent.
If you are in Wiluna in Western Australia in October there will be a screening for the people who took me onto their country out that way.