Introductory text by Suzanne Walsh
We begin, as in all films, with the eye, and our human aspiration to enhance and expand upon natural vision. To see further than our earth and time-bound nature allows us. The slow opening of an observatory, as though it were an eye, but godlike, so that we can see deeply into space, and discern the mysteries of stars and planets, an ancient desire. Once, the movements of these celestial bodies were used to guide our futures, and for some still do. The sky has often functioned as a kind of screen, on which to project our fears and dreams onto.
Divination through the observation of birds, as described in Bryony Dunne’s Killing the Messengers, has a long history, and still remains in folkloric traces. In Ireland, for example, a bird caught inside a house, foretells a death. Birds have always seemed particularly transcendental, moving easily between earth and sky, sky and sea, between humans and the gods even. It’s no wonder we have long seen them as some kind of moving data, a sense that the arcs of their flights might provide some signs that can be relied upon in an unpredictable world.
Killing the Messengers moves from a celestial and mythological gaze to a more earthy one, the green misted island of Antikythera, on the Aegean Sea within the Mediterranean. The scientists who’ve come to study migratory birds here, at first, seem worlds away from priest-diviners, with their worn t-shirts and makeshift tables of tools. But the volunteers’ bags of twitching captive birds hang from their shoulders, like offerings. And the scientists’ tools, which vary from simple to sophisticated technologies, have their own potency. The data collected from the birds has immense potentiality to effect change on issues such as climate change.
We hear the calls of the birds, from throaty hums to thrills, as each is introduced visually. Here rich details leap to the eye, the russets, creams and electric blues of the European Bee Eater. The honey-brown feathers of a small Sedge Warbler, the startled eye of an Eurasian Sparrow Hawk. The slow uncoiling of a Little Bittern, reluctant to fly.
The close-up of each bird transitions to their recorded data, depicted through their ring-numbers. Bird-ringing assigns birds a human-like ‘nationality’, depending on the country they are recorded in. A list of recorded birds tracks down the screen, showing their transformation from living beings into mysterious sets of digits, from which experts divine the patterns concealed within.
Dunne’s film discourages us from simply getting lost in the images, always reminding the viewer of an underlying purpose that may be divined from these birds’ movements. Screens, these days, can be cinematic or utilitarian, for work as well as reverie. We constantly switch between these modes, often on the same devices. While it seems a kind of flattening to reduce the animated bodies of birds to mere information, this process doesn’t however dissipate the vitality of their presence in the film. They exceed their classification, like all living things.
The imagery of birds caught in nets, delicate legs twisted, is a challenging one, even as they are untangled with care. Then comes the slow work of measuring and ringing them, binding them to our human world. The focus here is repeatedly on the motion of hands, holding fluttering bodies and then releasing them, like some conjured demons, banished back again to the airy realm.
The idea of birds as emissaries of the gods is mentioned in many of the famous texts of the ancient world. In Homer’s The Odyssey, birds appear as messengers from Athena or Zeus. Or else they are the gods themselves in disguise, come to advise or interfere in human activities. Augury is mentioned here too, the prophet Halitherses, ‘surpassed all men of his generation in his knowledge of birds and expounding omens’. In Aristophanes’ play The Birds, birds themselves expound upon their role as special advisors and guides to humanity.
We too wish to see further than we can, and have constantly strived to extend our vision, often through technology. We can’t fly like birds but we can take cinematic journeys, or flit between sites on online searches for knowledge or entertainment. We use cameras for surveillance, and for mapping the earth from satellites, disembodied gazes. Now, we have screens in our pockets, in which we can be, at least digitally, anywhere. It is perhaps no wonder that one of our most prolific spaces for online exchange is called ‘Twitter’, where the latest patterns of opinion, news and memes spread in fast moving formations.
It is interesting to consider that a thirst for technology has a link, in part, to the consumption that fuels the lifestyles of the world’s wealthier societies and countries, and contributes to climate change and its effects. One could be reminded of another mythological figure, that of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun with wings made with wax and feathers, in his desire to be like the birds, to be as invincible as the gods. However the sun melted the wax that bound his feathers, and he plunged to his death in the sea below. Humankind could be accused of hubris too, in our desire to ignore the signs of impending disaster that our industries, and sometimes lifestyles, bring.
Killing the Messengers also brings to mind the desperate plights of human migration to the islands of Greece in recent years, due to the effects of war and climate change on their homelands. The connection, between both human and bird migration, is referred to more explicitly in a previous film of Dunne’s, Above the Law, (2019). But the focus in Killing the Messengers remains on the birds themselves, and their right to share the world and skies with us.
Towards the end of the film scientists affix a sci-fi-esque device to a European turtle dove, in order to investigate its species’ decline. We follow along on this journey, a digital map of changing ochres and reds as we progress from North to Central Africa. For a moment it seems we are flying too, high above, as this white line symbolising the dove progresses. Until at last it disappears, where the landscape turns to a more verdant green, back into mystery.