With the explosion of reality television in the 2000s came the ubiquitous critiques maligning the broad format as a single monolithic genre with nothing of value, discounting any number of thoughtful, compassionate, well-crafted reality programs. However, one sub-genre of reality programming that has earned that dubious reputation is the exploitation of a physical or mental illness masquerading as compassionate storytelling. Intervention, My Strange Addiction, Hoarders, My 600 Pound Life; these programs about over-eaters, under-eaters, drug addicts, alcoholics, and obsessive compulsives all pretend to invest in the lives of individuals suffering from mental illness and dependency while turning their worst moments into sensationalized television. Making a piece of art or entertainment out of someone’s mental illness should be a delicate balancing act (the little seen 2016 documentary Peter and the Farm walks this line wonderfully, turning its subject’s mental illness into a meditation on life and art and allowing him to be a full person without boiling his worst moments down to a meme that can be passed around). The new documentary For the Birds often has trouble finding the balance between human interest and exploitation.
Richard Miron’s documentary chronicles the troubles brought about by Kathy Murphy’s love for her birds… all 200 of them. Kathy is an animal hoarder, having turned the small home and property she shares with her husband into a convention of chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, and other fowl. Her small city in upstate New York has filed official complaints and her ailing husband is trying to find some peace among the chickens in his twilight years. But most importantly: Kathy is not well. Her infatuation with birds has grown and morphed into something that has threatened the health and well-being of herself, her husband, and the birds. And while For the Birds isn’t completely unsympathetic to Kathy’s condition, it seems to take too much pleasure in presenting her as a curio. She launches into a long rambling diatribe and the camera slowly zooms in as if to say, “Can you believe she’s still talking?” Scenes of Kathy and her disillusioned lawyer enthusiastically celebrating minor victories in a case they were clearly never going to win strike a condescending tone (Kathy was charged with cruelty to animals and sentenced to five years of probation). Not until the final half hour, when Kathy’s life has irrevocably changed, does the movie begin to convey genuine concern for her well-being. Whereas great documentaries shift focus when the real story becomes more evident (Gimme Shelter, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, and Icarus, for example), For the Birds is intent on making a quirky movie about an animal lover gone overboard and can’t fully change gears when confronted with a much different theme.
There is a spark of energy in the film’s depiction of a decades old marriage challenged by age, mental and physical maladies, and an increasing divide in desires. Kathy’s husband Gary—who works midnight to 8 AM and fights for sleep each morning among a chorus of crows and quacks—is in an increasingly dire state, diagnosed with diabetes and constantly overwhelmed by his wife’s obsession. He begins working behind Kathy’s back with local animal sanctuaries to remove the birds from his property. Kathy and Gary’s dynamic is tragically comfortable, two people who have grown so accustomed to being near each other they aren’t able to confront the growing animosity in their relationship.
To what degree is a filmmaker responsible for the well-being of its subject? A filmmaker has no moral obligation to keep its subject from doing something dangerous that may cause them to catch fire and the filmmaker would be expected to keep filming if they do. But when the spectacle of a human on fire becomes more important than the human itself, the filmmaker reaches an ethical dilemma. Too much of For the Birds feels like an invasive look into the life of a woman who is not well. And though the film’s final twenty minutes seem to invest more time and energy into exploring Kathy’s well-being, the overall feeling of the film is that of a woman who has caught fire and an audience watching to see how high the flames grow.