The duo of Sergio da Costa and Maya Kosa has garnered attention for their previous film, Rio Corgo (2015). Now, they are back with their new film, Bird Island, which brilliantly mixes documentary and fiction in a Swiss bird shelter. It follows a new employee (Antonin Ivanidze) as he interacts with and learns from the shelter's three employees: Paul Sauteur, who breeds the rats that are fed to the recovering birds, and two employees who care for the birds themselves, Emilie Bréthaut and Iwan Fasel.
We interviewed the directors about Bird Island at its world premiere as part of the Filmmakers of the Present competition at the 72nd Locarno Film Festival.
NOTEBOOK: How did you learn about this place and how the idea for the film came about?
SERGIO DA COSTA: In 2013 we found a wounded bird on the road and brought it to this ornithological center. This place particularly marked me with its chaotic characters. Since we were in Switzerland, I was expecting to discover a sanitized hospital where everything would be well ordered. The sensation of chaos came mainly from the sound: there was a tension between the noise of planes passing a few meters above the aviaries and the ceaseless cries of the enclosed birds. Initially, it was a solo project. I was more sensitive to this place than Maya [Kosa]. I saw its cinematic potential as a disaster film. The idea of filming this place stayed in mind and it was only in 2015, when we finished our previous feature film Rio Corgo, that I discovered the existence of a Swiss documentary contest which offered the possibility of financing an entire project. It was the perfect opportunity to develop a film about the ornithological center. With the help of Maya and a friend, Christian Tarabini, we wrote a project and we won. To summarize, we can say that it was the decor that set the stage for a story still to be invented.
During the scouting, I met Paul Sauteur, who raised rats to feed the birds of prey. Paul had been working at the center for years as part of a professional reintegration program. He had to retire and the director of the center was unable to find a replacement for him. Nobody wanted this job, which requires killing dozens of rats a day. This situation gave us the idea of integrating a character who would replace Paul. In this sense, the film anticipates reality. And Maya proposed to introduce Antonin Ivanidze to play the role of the trainee. Antonin's integration into the film got Maya more interested in the project and finally agreed to direct the film with me. Antonin is not an employee of the center, nor is he an actor. By the time we met him, he was a film student attending the same school where we had studied a few years before him.
NOTEBOOK: The film combines daily ordinary actions with inserts of fictional elements. What was the concept behind the narrative structure?
MAYA KOSA: This mix between documentary and fiction comes from our desire to transform reality, to push further the potential of the material that is offered to us. For example, in this idea of modifying the reality, we worked by subtraction, reducing the number of characters (actually dozens of people work at this centre), focusing on those whose activities had the most dramatic power to our eyes. It may seem paradoxical, because at the same time we were aware that we were distorting the place and yet we felt that it was the only way for us to access its essence. Then, to complicate the story and reveal the themes from the place, we introduced an external character, Antonin, who brings with him the fiction. However, inside this fiction, we also draw the portrait of the real Antonin, proposing a journey inside him, through his thoughts, the voice over, but also his singular physical presence.
NOTEBOOK: What about the voiceover and the use of text?
KOSA: Throughout writing and shooting the film, we had in mind Diary of a Country Priest  by Robert Bresson. Influenced by this film, we asked Antonin to write, during the shooting, a diary which had to relate to his experience at the ornithological centre. We hoped that this diary would serve us to write the voiceover later. Finally, we used a few things of this written material because it was too far from the character that had taken shape during the editing. The idea of the voiceover was there from the beginning, but it was created last, once the editing phase was finished. It was with Camille Vanoye, the assistant director, who closely followed the evolution of the project, that we looked for a voiceover that sticks to the character present in the images. This step was clearly the most difficult, among other things because it was a new exercise for us. It is in a friendly and collective spirit that has accompanied us since the shooting until the end of the editing, which lasted almost two years, that we wrote the voice-over in the course of two weeks. After this long period of editing we weren’t able to clearly see our images anymore. With her distance, Camille helped us to see once more what our sequences contained. With her we structured the ideas that we had been interested in from the beginning, namely Paul's social situation, the birds' operations and the portrait of Antonin. Antonin who writes in a poetic style helped us to find the tone of the voiceover.
NOTEBOOK: How was the process to cast the main character in the film and how was the collaborative work with him from the script to the shooting?
DA COSTA: First, we were touched by his sensitivity and his “poetico-political” vision of the world. We saw that in his own school projects too. We thought that it could be an interesting perspective through which the spectator could discover the ornithological center.
We really began our collaboration working on certain sequences from the script where we knew that dialogues were needed. With Antonin we discussed what could share from his own life experience that could make sense in the film’s particular context. We decide to subtly explore his past sickness. Then during the shooting, we discovered that Antonin had a good capacity to really live the situation where he was immersed. He reacts with his entire body to the situations. And as Maya already said, he also had the mission to write a diary about his experience. This diary didn’t quite help us to write the voiceover, but it helped Antonin to delve deeper into his character.
NOTEBOOK: I am particularly interested in a certain melancholy that springs from the film. Could you please elaborate on your idea of creating mood in cinema and how did you expect this feeling to impact the audience?
KOSA: I think that the place we filmed already contained a kind of melancholy and our own sensitivity put it in the foreground. Today, the issue of climate change takes a prominent place in our daily lives. In 2013, when we discovered the place, we were far from imagining that we were facing a precipice when we learned that the most common birds were disappearing in a massive way. This is when the center started appearing to us as a sort of war hospital, which reveals the damage in progress on the front: destruction of the habitats due to the expansion of human activities, food poisoning by pesticides, et cetera. Looking at the wounded birds, we had the sensation of filming a world that is disappearing. We were then invaded by a feeling of melancholy, which certainly contaminated the film.
NOTEBOOK: In this sense, it is interesting the use of sound and specifically, the use of classical music, which adds a high level of solemnity or spirituality to the film. Could you talk about this decision?
DA COSTA: The choices of music are more related to our sensitivity than to our intentions. For my part, I am sensitive to religious music and for this film I searched for Protestant composers since we were making our first film in Switzerland. Then, moving away from my first research, I stumbled by chance on the three musics of the film very early in the process, even before writing the script. It's a little bit abstract, but I feel that they influenced us in our way of filming the place and the characters. I think they also participate to the somewhat melancholic mood that you mentioned before.
NOTEBOOK: It is interesting how this animal rehabilitation center also becomes a shelter for the humans. How did you develop this mirrored concept?
KOSA: This idea comes from the place itself, which hosts injured or sick birds and people in professional reintegration. Often, these people have problems that go beyond the issue of getting any work. Paul, like Iwan [Fasel], who play their own roles in the film, had several problems: difficult past, exploded family structures, social isolation and addiction issues. They were also wounded by life. As for Antonin, even though he was young, he was exhausted and had been isolated by a long hospitalization. We integrated this biographical element into the narration, because it made sense with what the birds lived and also Paul and Iwan. With the voice-over, we reinforced this link between these beings because it touched us of course, but also to make more coherent the alternate editing present in the film and create a homogeneous universe where, men and animals are on the same level.
NOTEBOOK: At some point in the film, the voiceover says that some birds prefer security than the freedom of the wilderness. Is this a film about people that is unable to live within society?
DA COSTA: Personally, I see the film "in negative." I feel that filming this sanctuary we're talking about its off-screen/hors-champ, an inhospitable world for the weakest of us. For us, it's a film in reaction to the destructive power of men. Human relationships are being very violent, as we can see with the catastrophic European management of the migrant crisis and ecologically, it's sad to see that we live in a world plagued by our presence.