Mountains, Fjords & Films

Bergen Film Festival

On Norway’s southwestern coast surrounded by mountains and fjords, is the 1000 year old city of Bergen. It’s a great mix of old and modern, brightly coloured historic wooden homes on cobble stone streets are steps away contemporary architecture and state of the art cinema’s. A renovated, full of character, waterfront sardine factory was one of the venue’s by the BIFF festival.

Old Bergen

approaching Bergen


The Messenger was part of a program called KLIMAFESTIVALEN, a group of 8 films that all, in different ways, touched on the theme of Climate Change. In addition to two very successful public screenings, The Messenger was part of the School Program and a Master Class at the University.


Hakon Tveit at Bergen Film Festival in Norway

Hakon Tveit at Bergen Film Festival in Norway


BIFF also offers a robust School Program. Masterminded by Hakon Tveit they grouped three films; The Messenger, License to Krill and Racing Extinction and showed them in one day to a group of 500 high school kids. How amazing is that! I found myself wishing I was 17 again.

Some of these enthusiastic students also run the film magazine Kinosyndromet and Utenriksmagasinet MIR with Bergen Student Radio broadcast on Chagall 2100. They invited me to discuss The Messenger. I confess was expecting a typical Canadian college radio station in a basement with some basic equipment and all night music. Not so, the show was hosted live in front of an audience by two enterprising young women, in a technically sophisticated and crowded social venue.  You can download the podcast here – originally broadcast – Tuesday Sept 29, 2015




The University of Bergen hosted a Masterclass in science communication titled “Get the Message Out”. The intent was to create a dialogue between the filmmakers, broadcasters and scientists with the goal of improving our ability to communicate science to a broader audience.

The kick-ass panelists were Thomas Wallner, Director of POLAR SEA 360. Me, Director of THE MESSENGER. Carina Bordewich, Acquisition Executive, NRK. Kaare Hersoug, Head of Development at Teddy TVand Øystein Jansen, Assistant Professor at the University Museum of Bergen – all of whom shared thier diverse, innovative and creative approaches.

On another level the topic felt especially important to me as a Canadian, as in recent years our scientists have been muzzled by the current government. For more on this listen to the great CBC podcast series Science Under Siege.

Thomas Wallner & Su Rynard

Thomas Wallner & Su Rynard

Get the Message Out

Get the Message Out


On another note entirely, I highly recommend a film I was fortunate to see at BIFF called Poached.

Directed by Timothy Wheeler, Poached reveals the bizarre underworld of illegal bird egg collecting. The film follows convicted egg offenders as they evade an army of bird lovers and wildlife crime police during “Operation Easter” in Britain. As the most notorious eggers begin to realize the destructiveness of their behavior, we wonder whether they ever can be redeemed and harnessed for good.

The festival has a wonderful hard working & talented team that made my brief visit a worth while experience.

Thanks to BirdLife Norway for helping to spread the word.

BIFF Norway - audience settles in



A Different Tomorrow


Reykjavik International Film festival

This year, RIFF could have been called the festival of amazing women in film. Margarethe Von Trotta was the special guest, and her Q & A was moderated by the former (female) prime minister of Iceland – Vigdis Finnbogadottir.   When I stepped onto the stage for The Messenger Q&A one of the many faces in the audience was that of Bjork. She was not a special guest of the festival, and did not receive any kind of VIP invite to the screening. She selected her films and simply bought her tickets on-line, just like any other Icelander.


In addition to the impressive audience and moderators, there were many great films with female directors including, Amber Fares wonderful film Speed Sisters, about a team of women street racers in Palestine and Paris based Leila Bouzid beautiful and powerful film, As I Open My Eyes, a coming of age story of a young girl pushing boundaries testing the limits in Tunisia.


Screen Shot 2015-09-28 at 8.01.26 PM

I confess there was little time for anything other than the busy-ness of the film festival, however when walking through town many birds were present. Near city hall the Tjornin Pond is home to the Whooper swan, Graylag goose and the Lesser black-backed gull. But beyond Reykjavik ponds, Iceland’s seabird colonies are vanishing. Our high-carbon lifestyle is turning up the oceans’ thermostat, and seabirds are feeling the heat. The leading reasons behind this are the array of profound changes under way in the world’s oceans—their climate, their chemistry, their food webs, their loads of pollutants.

A Different Tomorrow

Snsolaug Ludvikskottir

The task of change can sometimes feel overwhelming. Yet when at a festival like this I am inspired by other films that creatively and beautifully address many of the concerns we are facing today. RIFF featured a program called A Different Tomorrow – These films shed light on environmental and humanitarian topics because, sometimes the right film can change the world. If any of these films come your way, please watch! Haida Gwaii: On the Edge of the World, How to Change the World, Planetary, and Last of the Elephant Men.


The Messenger screening prompted the comment “I didn’t know this was happening” and question “What can I do?” Both of these statements I can very much identify with. Before making this film, I was in the “I didn’t know” category. As changes in bird populations from year to year can be barely perceptible, but over time, they snowball to create the shocking statistics that face us today. There is no one cause, no “smoking” gun for songbird declines, so how do we combat these multiple threats around the globe? A simple start is to – get outside, go for a walk, and listen. Then visit Every bit helps.






France Activist Andrea Rutigliano

Les Landes and the Ortolan

This fall, the illegal hunting of birds is much in the news and I am reminded of a September, two years ago when we filmed our story about the trapping of the Ortolan bunting in Les Landes, France.

The Ortolan Bunting is a beautiful little songbird that used to be common but has declined in the last 30 or 40 years. Each fall the Ortolan migrate from all over Europe to their wintering grounds in Africa. The Ortolan are largely grain eaters, and they spend the summer working on building up their fat reserves so they can survive this long migration. It is their diet and their fat that makes them particularly appealing to humans, as they are delicious to eat, and in France there is a long-standing tradition of doing just that.

Napoleon granted the right to hunt and trap small birds to the peasants. The large game was reserved for the noblemen. To this day this tradition continues. Les Landes is an important stop over site for the migrating Ortolan. It is also a battleground between Hunters who continue to trap (and eat) the bird and activists who wish to put an end to this practice. Trapping of the Ortolan bunting was banned in 1999, yet despite the fact the hunt is illegal the French authorities turn a blind eye. The stakes are high.

Ortolan in cage

To tell this story we filmed with the hunters and with the activists who touch down each year, at the same time as the migrating Ortolan. Their mission is to protect the birds. The activist groups unofficial leader was Andrea Rutigliano, an Investigations Officer. With CABS, Committee Against Bird Slaughter, Andrea, an Italian anthropologist has been doing this kind of work all over Europe for almost 20 years. He speaks five different languages, loves birds, knows his politics and his science. Science is key in this battle as local hunters defend their right to trap, believing that the hunt is sustainable and the numbers affected by trapping are pale in comparison to other problems the birds face. That said, in France the nesting population of Ortolan is in danger of extinction.

Ortolan investigation

As a recent article in The Guardian states 25 million birds are illegally killed each year in the Mediterranean, and nearly half the killings occur in EU states where the hunting of songbirds is banned and there is a massive failure of governments and the authorities to act. In the Messenger, Andrea tells us “You cannot defend a tradition that is not sustainable anymore… a tradition is not something that must be kept alive at any cost.”

Wise words. You can see the entire scene in The Messenger.

Ortolan Gendarmerie


Mixing Sound – a sensory experience of place

In filming The Messenger we travelled to three different continents, and each place we went possessed a unique acoustic and auditory character. From the editing to the final mix, I felt it was imperative that we fully articulate this sensory experience of place and time.

Supervising Re-recording Mixer Daniel Pellerin with Re-recording Mixer Chris Guglick

Supervising Re-recording Mixer Daniel Pellerin with Re-recording Mixer Chris Guglick

As our final sound mix gets underway at URBAN POST in Toronto, we are very lucky to be working with the talented duo of Daniel Pellerin Supervising Re-recording Mixer and Christopher Guglick Sound Re-recording Mixer. These guys make for a super-busy team, as in the last few weeks they have mixed the films “Remember” (Atom Egoyan) and “Milk” (Noemi Weis).  From a practical perspective, this takes a team. So for many months, composer and sound designer Phil Strong has been fine-tuning music, location ambiences and bird song.

Chris Guglick; “The most unique aspect of mixing this film was the scope and range of all the different sounds of birds.  Phil did an amazing job organizing all the sounds which allowed me to take all of the different birds and give them a life on screen. I have worked in many different human languages, but working in the language of another species entirely was something new for me.”

Re-recording Mixer Chris Guglick at Urban Post

Re-recording Mixer Chris Guglick at Urban Post


Because our schedule and budget are very tight, Phil was just a day or two ahead of the mixers with his work, sometimes outputting the original music just hours before it was needed in the mix theater – quite the marathon indeed. Importantly, the mix is a creative journey in its own right, as the work is both intense and intuitive.  Daniel Pellerin;

“With every film you have to find the language that suits the film. The tone of the characters, quality of the voices, the sense of unfolding time and emotion of the story.”


Joanne Jackson, Producer Left. Su Rynard, Director Right.

Joanne Jackson, Producer Left. Su Rynard, Director Right.

As a director, my work is very nuanced, often contemplative, and layered in both content and context. Sound plays a pivotal role. It is often the aural experience that positions how a scene will be experienced and interpreted. In The Messenger we walk a razor sharp edge between tragedy and joy, dramatic tension and release, optimism and sobering truths. In most cases it is the sound that tips the scale to what the experience will be. This balance is not something that can easily be achieved, but with this team I knew I was in good hands. Daniel Pellerin;

“I love docs that have to do with nature, as the challenge is to make it immersive — putting the audience in the theatre yet creating the feeling that they are not in the theatre. In this film, music and birds are the lead “instruments” and a delicate balance is required.”  This idea is taken a step further by Chris Guglick;

As a sound effects mixer I’m often asked to turn down the sound of birds because they can distract from the action in the film.  This film gave the birds a leading role that could, if executed poorly, distract from the important information being expressed by the other characters on screen.  Finding that balance was key.

Here is a taste of the mix experience. A brief pirate recording of my own film, created on my iphone. Enjoy.


The Secret to Filming Wild Birds in Big Cities & “Jungles”

To film The Messenger we travelled across three different continents, as the film takes viewers on a journey from the northern reaches of the Boreal Forest to the base of Turkey’s Mount Ararat to the urban streets of New York – and more. In Toronto, we filmed with FLAP (Fatal Light Awareness Program). Here, at dawn, during migration season, volunteers patrol the city street looking for dead or injured birds. They document the dead and rehabilitate the wild. Some days are worse than others, as fatalities can range from zero a hundred birds or more.

Our shoot day was a lucky day for the birds, due to the weather conditions and migration patterns – collisions were low. So without much to film, our team headed by Joshua See (cinematography) and the multi-talented Caitlin McManus (sound) packed up their gear and headed home.

However, a short time later, Cait stumbled across a small flock of Golden-crowned kinglets that had collided with a building. Given that the day’s filming had been a bit of a bust – Cait called Josh back to the “crime scene” to film the collision fatalities. To find a group of dead Golden-crowned kinglets is a sad story indeed. These birds have declined by about 2.5% per year since 1966 – this translates into a 67% decline since 1966! Sobering statistics indeed.

kinglet 2 kinglets x 2

There is a ray of hope in this story.

There was a kinglet that survived, and it was sitting on the sidewalk stunned. Josh managed to get his camera out and ready in time to film this kinglets transformation from stunned to “back in the game” as it flew away. This has to be one of my favourite moments in the film. Watch it here:

We were really happy to see this little guy muster his strength and get back on this way. Golden-crowned Kinglets live in Canada’s dense stands of spruce and fir forests during summer, and when it gets cold they move south to spend winters across the U.S. Let’s hope the rest of his journey was safe.


Filming wild birds in the city has its challenges, but what about in the wilderness? This is a question I put to cinematographer Joshua See.

“Filming wildlife, tiny songbirds included, takes a special set of technical skills, nature-knowledge, and patience.”

“From the camera technical side of things you typically need large telephoto lenses and big stable tripods that support the camera’s weight and keep shots steady. You’ll also need strong legs to haul the gear to where the wildlife is!

An important ecosystem that we wanted to capture in The Messenger was Canada’s vast and notoriously thick Boreal forest. Wildlife biologist colleagues of mine often refer to it as the “Boreal Jungle”. With a massive camera slung over your shoulder, and a pack full of lenses and batteries, it definitely seems a fitting term!

The next critical piece is to find the birds you are looking for.

There are two main strategies that can be employed here: sit and wait, or listen and move.

While filming on location in Costa Rica more often than not I was able to identify busy bird locations where he could set up inconspicuously and wait. Flowering trees, ripe banana plants, or a shady trickling stream were bird hotspots.

Joshua See cinematographer, with bird guide Ernesto Carman fine tune the "blind" that kept the camera hidden from the birds.

Joshua See cinematographer, with bird guide Ernesto Carman fine tune the “blind” that kept the camera hidden from the birds.

Our incredible bird guide, Ernesto Carman from Café Christina coffee farm, took director Su Rynard and me to a large and beautiful tree next to an old café in a Costa Rican river valley. There, every night hundreds of Baltimore orioles and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks seek refuge under its canopy. We watched and filmed in amazement as streams of beautiful birds converged on the old tree.

Joshua See cinematographer, with bird guide Ernesto Carman. Filming at  Café Christina coffee farm in Costa Rica

Joshua See, cinematographer, with bird guide Ernesto Carman. Filming at Café Christina coffee farm in Costa Rica

Blue-crowned motmot

Back in the Boreal jungle, the best strategy was to listen for the songs of the songbird species we especially wanted shots of, and then to try and locate that male based on his loud song being broadcast through the forest. Having knowledge of birdcall identification proved invaluable.


It’s also important to consider the time of day: birds are most active at dawn and dusk while the air is cool. Typically mid-day is when bird activity is lowest, and the sunlight least pleasing for getting the most beautiful frames.

western tanager

When all of the right factors come together we are able to get a close-up view into the often-mysterious world of songbirds.

Ultimately, the birds are the real stars and should take most of the credit for the beautiful imagery we see on screen. We are grateful for their participation in the production.

magnolia warbler

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