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CPH:DOX Festival Abuzz With Hummingbirds

The hummingbirds of Every Little Thing are migrating from North America to Europe. Sally Aikten’s film about the extraordinary avian aerialists and a Los Angeles woman who tends to injured hummingbirds is making its European premiere at CPH:DOX in Copenhagen, after initially hovering over Sundance.

Larry Bird, Raisin, Cactus, Alexa and Mikhail are among the tiny ornithological wonders that appear in the film. Their human caretaker, Terry Masear, wrote the Fastest Thing on Wings: Rescuing Hummingbirds in Hollywood about the many years she has spent looking after hummingbirds – ones that may have collided with a window, say, or babies that have tumbled from their nests.

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'Fastest Thing on Wings: Rescuing Hummingbirds in Hollywood'
'Fastest Thing on Wings: Rescuing Hummingbirds in Hollywood'

“We follow Terry over the course of the spring-summer season, which — if anyone is in L.A. — they’ll know as peak hummingbird time,” Aitken told us at Sundance. “And literally, if you have an injured or wounded hummingbird that somehow comes across your path, you can phone Terry and she will triage on the phone. You send her photos; you send her video. She’s a genius. She knows exactly what’s the problem.”

Producer Bettina Dalton continued, “[Terry] really is like a first responder for the hummingbirds… She also knows how to treat the [human] finders when they come in. She knows those that are fragile, those that just really want to get the bird off their hands, they don’t know what to do. So, it also is a reflection of L.A.; the people that come in represent the diversity of L.A., the diversity of personalities.”

Author Terry Masear attends the "Every Little Thing" Premiere during the 2024 Sundance Film Festival at The Ray Theatre on January 21, 2024 in Park City, Utah.
Author Terry Masear at the Sundance Film Festival

Masear displays a deep empathy for hummingbirds that recalls the incredible connection between human and animal seen in the documentary Buck, about renowned “horse whisperer” Buck Brannaman. In that 2011 film, Brannaman said his intuitive understanding of horses resulted from being severely abused as a child by his father. Interestingly, Masear’s capacity for caring so deeply for vulnerable creatures seems to stem from a traumatic childhood as well. Her experience of the birds – their extraordinary abilities – has convinced her that a human-centric view of the value of life is both distorted and cruel.

“We are all on this planet, not just humans,” Aitken said in describing Masear’s perspective. “And hummingbirds have perceptions we do not have. So, when I say the film is magical, what we’re actually reaching for is the idea that humans are not superior necessarily, and that actually there is a possibility to move through this world with a little more kindness, a little more empathy. And that is exemplified in the work that Terry does with the hummingbirds. But actually it’s a bigger message. It’s a universal idea: Things get broken, things can be repaired. Actually, the hummingbirds are reminders of what is already in us and our ability to be resilient.”

Any comparison between human and hummingbirds must acknowledge certain respects in which the birds have got it over us. Firstly, of course, they can fly. Not only can they fly, they can do it upside down. Some species beat their wing 50 times per second.

Producer Bettina Dalton and director Sally Aitken at the Deadline Portrait Studio during the 2024 Sundance Film Festival on January 21, 2024 in Park City, Utah.
Producer Bettina Dalton and director Sally Aitken at the Deadline Portrait Studio during the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.

“We had a brilliant camera woman [Ann Johnson Prum] who shot with a Phantom camera that shoots at a thousand frames a second,” Dalton noted. “So, that ability to capture the hummingbird and actually be able to observe the wing beat and the joints and the engineering is mesmerizing.”

Aitken said it was thrilling as a director “to see the tiniest birds writ large on a big screen, and that idea of those tiny birds and this sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles. Going deep into the hummingbird realm with this extraordinary cinematography in the film, it really was such a beautiful project as a director, so visual — that iridescence on their throats, the colors… It’s just beautiful.”

A broad-billed hummingbird photographed in Glendora, Calif. February 27, 2024.
A broad-billed hummingbird photographed in Glendora, Calif. February 27, 2024.

Hummingbirds are so delicate, so feathery light, that if a birds dies, it’s physical form may (to borrow from Shakespeare) melt into air.

“When you bury a hummingbird,” Dalton said, “within a matter of days — the bones are so hollow and so light, they literally disintegrate… It’s so ephemeral.”

Dalton and Aitken also collaborated on the 2021 documentary Playing with Sharks: The Valerie Taylor Story, about the work of another exceptional person who views the natural world not as an object of conquest, but of wonder.

“We share this planet with so many other creatures, so many other little things. And we kind of don’t know anything about them,” Aitken said. With Playing with Sharks and Every Little Thing, the implicit message is “to kind of take a moment and be curious and be empathetic to their world, and then be absolutely enamored of their world and realize that life is precarious and it’s precious.”

Dogwoof is handling sales of Every Little Thing. The film closes with the classic Bob Marley song “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright,” which includes these lyrics:

“Rise up this mornin’,/ Smiled with the risin’ sun,

Three little birds/Pitch by my doorstep

Singin’ sweet songs/Of melodies pure and true,

Sayin’, (‘This is my message to you-ou-ou:’)

Singin’: ‘Don’t worry ’bout a thing,

‘Cause every little thing gonna be all right.’”

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