For the Birds

For the Birds is one of the most extraordinary documentaries of the last few years. It takes you deep into a woman's life, and equally as deep into the subject of hording. The result is a film that's personal and informative, psychological and educational. I have no idea how director Richard Miron, making his feature debut, got the access he did, but the viewer greatly benefits from the trust he earned.

Miron's subject is a woman named Kathy Murphy who lives with her husband Gary in a ramshackle mobile home in rural New York. Kathy is an animal hoarder, with 200 chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese. They aren't all in a coop outside, either. She allows them inside, which leads to exactly the kinds of problems you'd expect. When local animal advocacy groups get wind of the issue, they try to convince Kathy to allow some of her pets to go to a sanctuary where their health issues can be addressed and where they can live in appropriate conditions. Kathy, who loves the birds like children, is only willing to go along with the plan to a point.

For the Birds documents all the fascinating twists and turns this story took. To save the animals, the advocates have no choice but to violate Kathy's trust. She responds by digging in her heels, which leads to legal action. The lawyer she gets to represent her has an office every bit as cluttered and chaotic as her home, and that's just one of many unanticipated directions things go.

What's most compelling about the film is its up-close look at mental illness. Kathy demonstrates extreme anxiety whenever the subject of losing her birds comes up. As we get to know her better, it becomes clear that they not only bring her comfort, they also allow her to block out things in the world that she doesn't want to deal with. Gary observes that nobody wants to come and visit because the house is so filthy – and that's probably his wife's intention. We can see how the birds are her safety mechanism; she only feels “okay” when she's around them. Without her companions, she has no other coping skills to fall back on. This, in turn, leads to intense protectiveness that morphs into outright fierceness when threatened.

On another level, For the Birds also looks at marriage. Gary hates the birds and would love to be rid of them. As tensions mount between Kathy and the animal advocates, the marriage grows more strained. He actually sides with them, not her. As you might imagine, that comes with consequences. The film gets you to empathize with both Gary and Kathy, so as their relationship begins to buckle under the pressure, you may feel your heart breaking a little bit.

About two-thirds of the way through, I momentarily wondered if the movie was actually exploiting Kathy's mental illness. Then I saw where For the Birds ends up and realized it most definitely is not. (Again, one of those unforeseen twists.) Miron cares greatly about his subject. He has made a very humane documentary that is ultimately a celebration of perseverance in the face of mental health problems.

I won't forget this film, or these people, anytime soon. Neither will you.

out of four

For the Birds is unrated, but contains adult language. The running time is 1 hour and 32 minutes.