Did you know there’s a specific breed of pigeons that summersault mid-air? Did you know groups of people around the world who raise birds to do just that and have turned it into a competitive sport? Neither did I, at least until I watched Milena Pastreich’s documentary Pigeon Kings.
Pastreich turns her camera’s on a collection of primarily African American men in South Central Los Angeles who have not only taken up this peculiar sport, but base their lives around birds who tumble through the air. BTW, the summersaulting is the result of seizures in case you’re curious. The more you know.
Like so many super-niche, ultra-specific subcultures, this one is fascinating, full of big personalities, characters, and all the inherent drama that comes with that. We meet a venerable veteran, a world champion the others look at with awe and reverence, who they go to for advice, and who breeds the birds they all want. There’s also the up-and-comer, the new blood who obsesses over every detail and desperately wants to be taken seriously, to fit in, and be one of the cool kids. And others fill in the spectrum, each trying to grab his bit of the glory.
And that glory, again, is a very specific, very compartmentalized type of glory. No one is getting rich off of this. In fact, it costs them much, much more than they ever get back. This is in terms of money—they spend tons on birds, food, pens, meds, supplements, and more. But the cost extends beyond the financial, too. Their passion and dedication strains romantic relationships, family bonds, and damages friendships. In one case, it leads to arrests and lasting legal problems. One man even jokes they all choose birds over wives. For lack of better term, they do this for the love of the game, because there’s not much additional benefit.
At 81-minutes, Pigeon Kings does miss some opportunities to go deeper. There are obvious issues of race and class in play, in a number of capacities, but it never explores them. We see moments and hints of larger family friction, but those, too, never develop further than a few awkward interactions and jokes that definitely carry an air of tragedy beneath the laughter. That’s a difficult part of documentaries, if you don’t have the footage, you don’t have it and can’t get it.
But this wishing-for-more is also a testament to what Pastreich does have. Pigeon Kings offers a compelling glimpse into a largely unknown corner full of fascinating people, its own culture and rules, triumphs and failures, and, you know, birds. It’s not a bad thing to want to keep digging, though it’s a bit disappointing when we can’t.
More than anything, Pigeon Kings makes me feel better about all my own niche obsessions and fascinations with subjects and areas—bands, movies, hobbies, myths, sports—that literally no one else cares about. It’s soothing to know you’re not alone and that other people from vastly different walks of life can fixate on things the same way.