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Birding documentary ‘Skyward’ makes world premiere at Aspen Shortsfest

Filmmaker Jessica Bishopp profiles young birders in 'Skyward' at Aspen Shortsfest


IF YOU GO …

What: ‘Skyward’ at Aspen Shortsfest

Where: Wheeler Opera House & Crystal Theatre (Carbondale)

When: Saturday, 2 p.m. (Aspen) and 7 p.m. (Carbondale)

How much: $20/GA; $15/members

Tickets: Wheeler box office; aspenshowtix.com

More info: ‘Skyward’ is part of a six-film program and will be followed by a filmmaker Q&A including director Jessica Bishopp; aspenfilm.org

Viewers can go into the field with two young birders on the front lines of the global biodiversity crisis in the short documentary “Skyward.” Director Jessica Bishopp’s film, which has its world premiere Saturday at Aspen Shortsfest, follows the British teen bird expert Arjun Dutta as he records bird calls, takes young people out for school trips and gives talks for nature groups, while teen Mya Babrick’s bird counts document the die-off of house sparrows in England (it’s down 70% since the 1960s, she reports).

The film follows young Mya as she heads out before dawn, with her mother, to catch and count sparrows and to watch migrating birds with a high-powered pair of tripod-mounted binoculars.

“Migratory birds are amazing because they fly such long distances every year,” she says in the film. “They must see so much going over the Sahara and vast expanses of land.”



The 19-minute film is a meticulously constructed, sumptuous experience of sight and sound. As it follows Arjun and Mya, the film includes long insert shots featuring lush close-ups of a British barn owl and buzzard, subtly linking them and their personalities to Arjun and Mya’s. Bishopp shot these cinematic bird portraits at a raptor center, where she happened to volunteer herself as a teenager, rather than in the wild.

Sound plays an outsized role in the film, as we listen for birdcalls and watch Arjun record them.




“Often I think people rely too heavily on sight,” Arjun says early in the film. “There are things that are really hard to see that you might hear, but if you don’t know that it’s there then you won’t look for it.”

We see him recording birds in fields and extending a microphone out of this bedroom window and watch him log the audio while he’s buried under his massive headphones, and we get to listen along to the crisp and ever-present birdsong of the film’s soundtrack.


The remarkable sound mix of “Skyward” includes birds recorded during filming as well as supplemental birdsong that Bishopp and her crew recorded in the wild, creating an atmospheric soundscape that runs the length of the film (in the credits you can read the long list of birds included).


“Skyward” is among a handful of movies from impressive young documentarians at Aspen Shortsfest who are practicing an intriguingly passive and artful observational style. “Nuisance Bear,” a similarly gorgeous observational film that follows polar bears through residential areas in Manitoba without any spoken words, from co-directors Jack Weisman and Gabriela Osio Vanden, is another standout (it plays in the Friday evening program at Carbondale’s Crystal Theatre).

“Skyward” offers scant biographical details or context about Arjun and Mya. Instead, it simply follows them on their birding excursions and lets them talk about their interests.

Bishopp this week screened the film for students at Basalt High School and gave a talk with Arjun and Mya video-conferenced in to talk with their peers.


Saturday’s “Skyward” world premiere marks Bishopp’s second selection at Shortsfest. Her short doc “Pampas,” about the suburban legend about plants placed in windows to signal sexual interest to neighbors, was among the choices in all-virtual 2020 festival.

Subcultures and off-Main Street subjects are Bishopp’s specialty, teen birders among them. Other previous subjects have included war reenactors and women clergy in the Church of England.

“I’m interested in subcultures, small communities, people who may not necessarily have their stories told because they’re not loud characters,” Bishopp said over coffee Monday at Felix Roasting Co. “And I prefer characters who are slightly quieter, or find it difficult maybe to be in the limelight or tend to shy away from it. I think those stories are important to be told. … I think in looking in the minutiae, and looking at a very private individual, you can still find universal stories and universal themes that people can react to.”

Though the film doesn’t make overt reference to the pandemic, “Skyward” was born out of it. Bishopp had been planning to make a different bird-centric film about groups of young people in Iceland working to preserve the puffin population there. When global society shut down due to the pandemic, she looked around closer to home in London.

“I realized that I was noticing, as most people did, more and more things around me in nature,” Bishopp said. “And I thought it would be interesting to explore my connection through film.”

Bioshopp had become a part of the online birding community (which, of course, is centered on Twitter) and through those connections began hearing about two teen Brits, Arjun and Maya, who were prominent and respected bird experts, but both very private. She courted them and interviewed them about their research before asking them to appear on camera.


Bishopp is among a contingent of about 70 filmmakers in town this week for the first in-person Aspen Shortsfest since 2019. In the opening days of Shortsfest, the joy of being back among peers in a festival environment has been palpable among the crowds of filmmakers at the Wheeler Opera House.

“We’re thrilled everybody can be here together,” Aspen Film artistic and executive director Susan Wrubel said in her opening remarks before Tuesday night’s opening film program. “I do think there is a real difference with everybody gathered here together in the dark sharing these stories from around the world.”

It’s Bishopp’s first festival and second trip outside of the U.K. since the pandemic began.

“I now feel incredibly privileged to travel,” she said. “Maybe before everything happened, we took it for granted. But I just feel incredibly lucky to be here now.”

Her film is among several world premieres at the festival this weekend, a slate that also includes the queer drama “Dress Up,” the rock ’n’ roll drama “Jensen,” the folk-horror short “Skin & Bone” and the Canadian racism drama “I Live Here.”

After this weekend’s premiere, Bishopp is hoping to place “Skyward” at more festivals and to get it in front of more international audiences. Eventually, it will run on the website of the British newspaper The Guardian, which executive-produced it.

The Icelandic puffin project, she said, has the potential to become Bishopp’s first feature-length documentary after a decade of making shorts. But she is reluctant to leave the short form behind.

“People always say that short films are sort of a stepping stone to something, and I think it’s a shame,” she said. “Short films are really specific in their medium. And there’s definitely something about them — if you have something less than five to 10 minutes, it can be super-experimental and non-linear. Over 10 minutes, you can do a lot with narrative and character. I’ve made so many short films and I’ve enjoyed experimenting.”

THIS WEEKEND AT ASPEN SHORTSFEST

FRIDAY

2 p.m.: ‘A Conversation with Producer Bill Gerber,’ Isis Theatre

4: Happy Hour, Aspen Sports Bistro

5: Shorts Program 6 and Q&A, Wheeler Opera House

7: Carbondale Program, Crystal Theatre

8: Shorts program 7 and Q&A, Wheeler

10: Après Screening, Mi Chola

SATURDAY

Noon: ‘So You’ve Made a Short Film…Now What?’ Pitkin County Library

2 p.m.: Shorts Program 8, Wheeler

4: Happy Hour, Aspen Sports Bistro

5: Shorts Program 9, Wheeler

5: Carbondale Program, Crystal

7: Carbondale Program, Crystal

8: Shorts Program 10, Wheeler

10: Après Screening, Aspen Pie Shop

SUNDAY

11 a.m.: Shorts ‘Family Program,’ Wheeler

2 p.m.: Special Showcase: Young Emerging Voices in Film, Isis

5: Carbondale Program, Crystal

6: Shortsfest Awards Dinner, Aspen Sports Bistro

aspenfilm.org


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