Opinion

Night Parrot Stories with Robert Nugent

Filmmaker Rob Nugent (ANU) set out to collect stories of the Night Parrot, an elusive ground dwelling nocturnal bird living somewhere in the remote deserts of central Australia. The film ‘Night Parrot Stories’ is his journey to discover the bird.

Filmmaker Rob Nugent (ANU) set out to collect stories of the Night Parrot, an elusive ground dwelling nocturnal bird living somewhere in the remote deserts of central Australia. The film ‘Night Parrot Stories’ is his journey to discover the bird.

He chats to the Sydney Environment Institute about the mystery behind the night parrot, its symbolism, where the film will be screening and more.

What attracted you to create a film on the night parrot?

The Night Parrot did not come into my life as an idea for a film. Since Night Parrots went missing 100 years ago, the bird has developed an enduring, if obscure, fame. But I can only guess how the germ of Night Parrot Stories came into being. I cast my mind back. For reasons I cannot now remember I was in the “Gould League of Bird Lovers” in Albury Primary School. Was that how I came to be interested in the birds as objects of study? I had first heard of the bird when I worked in Western Queensland in the early 1980s. Night. Parrot. It is an unusual word association. My bird book indicated it was “Probably Extinct”.

I did not think about the bird for many years, until I read John Kinsella’s collection of poems entitled ‘Night Parrot’. Later I spoke about the Night Parrot to a friend, who had been in the desert looking for them. He thought he might have even heard one, though its call (and it’s photographic image) had never been recorded or scientifically documented.

The Night Parrot, as a film idea, was a great excuse for an adventure so I applied for film development funds from Screen Australia. In 2013 they gave me enough money to fund a research expedition to Western Queensland, the Northern Territory and South Australia. The premise of my research was that the Night Parrot was “the Thylacine of the air”, a mythical creature which had ‘inspired many great but highly unsuccessful ornithological adventures’.

In the course of undertaking research for the film the Night Parrot miraculously reappeared, making front page headlines around the world. Good news, but I thought its rediscovery spelt an end to my film project. The bird was not a winged Thylacine. It really existed and Science, funded by Capitalism, stepped in to take over its narrative – a large mining company paid the folk who found her to do secret research and I had no access to the story of her resurrection. I could not let her go at that, though surely the Night Parrot now had her dramatic ending. A beloved lost object had been found. But who was the Night Parrot to be returned to?

What is the symbolism of the night parrot within Indigenous communities?

I am not sure the Night Parrot is symbolic for Indigenous people. It is not a famous ancestral being, but its character makes an interesting cameo. The Night Parrot is a sentinel creature in the libretto of the Kangaroo Dreaming, as recorded by T.G Strehlow. In his “Songs of Central Australia” the Night Parrots stand guard over the Red Kangaroos and warn them of imminent danger. Aboriginal people, attuned to such things, would not have appreciated their nocturnal hunting being signalled to the Kangaroos by a pesky Night Parrot standing sentry. In the song the Night Parrots are never seen, only heard.

Many Aboriginal folk told me that you see the Night Parrot once only and never again. This being another trait of the Night Parrot. Encounters with the bird are always solitary, leaving the observer doubting their sensors. The behaviour seemed to fit with the name the early explorers gave the bird – “Solitaire”.

How has the medium of film brought this specimen to life?

There is a fundamental question to ask before setting out to make a film…what will a moving picture camera bring to the idea? If you stay true to what can only be observed – as observers of bird behaviour do – and then impose a form on the images and the observers’ behaviour, then you are on your way to making a film. In this case a cinematic essay. There are many fine examples of ethnographic films that fulfill the charter of being truly only reproducible by thinking visually through a video camera. I like the dogma and the infinite complexity of that idea. Using film also imposes the passage of time. Time is one of the protagonists in the story of the Night Parrot.

What do you hope the audience take away from the film?

The film can not be decoded as a linear natural history documentary. However many attending Night Parrot Stories will be expecting such a classic narrative, moderated by the unseen presence of the filmmaker. The form of Night Parrot Stories is an implicit critique of such approaches. Its fragmentation is deliberate. The film is intended to be read as a ‘gestalt’. I don’t attempt to merely relay and explain current events. Films work best when they are partial, and it was my intention to create a mimetic affect…something that is felt beyond the intellect.

The loss we are witnessing is the connection between knowledge and meaning. It is disappearing from the very places where knowledge and meaning were originally generated.

Embedded in the film is my interest in nostalgia as ‘form’, but this melancholic perspective is offset by whimsicalities. I crash into things. That is how life is for all of us, what the anthropologist filmmaker Lucian Casing-Taylor calls ‘the sensory and cognitive muddle’ of experience. Filmmaking, as life experience, is no different.

How is the Anthropocene reflected in the film?

The final scenes in the film cast my odyssey in the ‘longue durée ’. The audience is invited to step back from the film and view its meta frame – all that has taken place has occurred during a particular moment in geological time. The end of the Holocene.

Where will it be screening over the next few months?

There will be screenings of Night Parrot Stories in Sydney, Canberra and regional towns over the coming months.

See the trailer here:

If you wish to get in touch with Rob, email him at robert.nugent@anu.edu.au

This interview has been edited from its original format for publishing purposes.