Director: Gavin Fitzgerald
There is so much to delight in Gavin Fitzgerald’s Million Dollar Pigeons, a documentary about the world-wide racing pigeon industry. An Irish film, premiering at the Irish Film Festival London, it starts with pigeon fancying’s working class roots. We meet some of the 41-member Clondalkin Pigeon Club who introduce us to the nuts and bolts of flying racing pigeons. Their self-elected spokesman, the charismatic John O’Brien, is regularly seen scraping shit out of his birdcages in his back yard. The men talk of how they got into the sport, and speak in wonder at the phenomenon of the huge international pigeon races, of which the South African Million Dollar Pigeon Race is the equivalent of the Olympics.
Then we’re in America where a highly successful pigeon breeder sits in his impressive grounds and speaks of his art. We catch glimpses of intense pigeon auctions in China, and learn the top price for a particular bird can exceed a million dollars. The American breeder is disparaging about small time amateur fanciers who think they are in with a chance at the South African race if they enter just a handful of birds.
In South Africa we meet the ebullient managing director of the South African Million Dollar Pigeon Race, Sara Blackshaw. Breeders from around the world send their best birds, at $1000 a bird, to be trained to undertake the marathon Million Dollar Race. Birds will be released some 500 kilometers from their lofts and are expected to race for 10-12 hours.
Meanwhile back in Dublin, O’Brien suggests the Clondalkin group raise the money to send four birds. Not everybody sees the point, but the persuasive O’Brien eventually collects enough. If this film were fiction, we could hope that this modest pigeon team will somehow overcome all the wealthy competitors to get a win for Ireland. Perhaps the dream will still come true?
If the film has a fault it is that director Gavin Fitzgerald has amassed so much footage, much of it dazzling, that he simply wants to include too much. It’s difficult to edit out scenes where an earnest pigeon vet performs operations or a large American man, while talking to camera, topples off his bench. But we have to wonder what they add to the story. And there are just too many stories. We’re suddenly in Belgium, where the top pigeon fancier there reckons Belgian pigeons are the best in the world. Do we really need to see old footage of him as a boy? Then we’re back and forth to America and South Africa, with abrupt stop offs in Holland. The Irish story drops out of sight for long periods of Million Dollar Pigeons. The documentary really needs a narrator to give us a sense of what is the overall story.
The filming of the big one, the South African Million Dollar Race, is a case in point. It’s fascinating, but it’s not always clear what is going on. As a spectator sport, pigeon racing can be rather underwhelming. The shots of pigeons all being simultaneously released from their carrying boxes and hurtling into the skies is mesmerising, however many times we see it, particularly when we learn that no one has been able to explain how a pigeon’s homing instinct works. But there then follows an awful lot scenes of men staring hopelessly at the sky and shaking their heads. When the first pigeon finally arrives, it’s like any old pigeon turning up on your bird table. It lands without fanfare outside the entrances to the lofts and proceeds to peck around nonchalantly. It’s not declared the winner until it goes through one of the those entrances, when its electronic tag is picked up and records its details.
Only gradually so we realise that the emerging story is that the South African 2020 Million Dollar Pigeon Race ends in scandal. A storm brews up late in the day and thousands of bird entrants fail to return. The camera catches a highly embarrassed Blackshaw trying to put a positive spin on the event. Will all the competitiors whose priceless pigeons have disappeared be reimbursed?
The story moves on to Thailand where a four-year-old company presents itself as the organisers of a new international face. Only women are employed to care for the pigeons and the conditions are clearly spotlessly hygienic. It’s at this point in the film that interest begins to flag. Who are we rooting for now? What exactly is Fitzgerald telling us? Meanwhile back in Dublin O’Brien’s relationship has fallen apart. He’s moving out, so there’s nowhere to keep pigeons. He seems to have developed a new passion for making pizza dough, so we feel he’ll be ok.
Where Million Dollar Pigeons really succeeds is turning us all into pigeon fanciers. We’ll look the garden variety with new respect.
Million Dollar Pigeons is screening at the Irish Film Festival 2022.