Friday, June 7, 2019

SIFF 2019: 'Pigeon Kings' Movie Review

a man sits alone in his back yard with pigeons

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.

[Read More: 11 Must See Films at SIFF 2019]


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.

[Read More: Find More Documentary Reviews Here]


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. 

[Read More: Check Out the Rest of Our SIFF 2019 Coverage Here]


1 comment:

Dave Henderson said...

I would love to see the movie just don't know where it is available.
I can't really reply to all that you cover in this review, but this hobby is more unique then you mention. We have people living in the hood with these birds and all the way up to judges, lawyers and doctors and all economic classes involved in this hobby/sport. The birds always tend to be the center and people don't tend to care what you do as a profession unless you live or are part of the same club then people will get closer to each other.
Many growing up with these birds were kept out of trouble because of taking on the responsibility of caring for them and ensuring they are feed and even flown as much as possible. It's always best for people to have hobbies they can do in the confines of their own back yard as you grow older, living in a world of electronics this type of hobby is kind of vanishing except in poor areas or Rural farm type areas that still have 4H programs where they teach animal husbandry.
The competitions are real and the desire to win these competitions also are real, it something people can take pride in creating something that can be competitive through selective breeding and flying.
The birds have a roll to them but there is no proof these actions are from seizures, this is only something that is mentioned so that normal people can get an ideas of what the action is. It is sort of a mixture of voluntary and involuntary behaviors in the birds. It is involuntary with some that are not able to control the action and will be maybe kill themselves at times, but for the majority the involuntary part of this is more of a learning curve for the bird(s). They normally start like baby steps before they get deeper and faster over time. This is the part that many tend to exaggerate about the birds. These are not unlike other athletes that are conditioned to perform well, horses, dogs and training is involved. If you breed and keep the birds using a scientific method to this and pay attention you can do well assuming you are able to juggle it all with your regular life away from them.
Being in the hobby most of my life now I have seen it all, heard it all and witnessed a lot. There are lots of opinions but like many things in life without proper monetary research all we can do is speculate as to why and how they develop and become the fascinating birds they are.