Mike Mlodinow / Production still courtesy MikeTheBirdman.com
The day after John Erwin had the idea for a film about a character known as “Mike the Birdman,” a local newspaper ran a story about the man with the given name of Mike Mlodinow. A person had called police on him, concerned that Mlodinow, who often wears a stocking cap and bulky clothes, might be up to no good. Instead, Mlodinow was off to do what he always does – record the movements and sounds of the birds of Northwest Arkansas. Police quickly cleared Mlodinow and sent him on his way.
The story in the paper only furthered Erwin’s desire to create the story.
What developed over the course of the interviews that would follow is a sense of the depth of Mlodinow’s character, his intensity and a 24-minute documentary.
What: A screening of “Mike the Birdman”
When: 7 p.m. Aug. 15
Where: Botanical Garden of the Ozarks, Fayetteville
“Mike the Birdman” will have a public debut at 7 p.m. Tuesday (Aug. 15) at the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks. It is the joint project of Erwin, videographer Paige Murphy and producer Ninette Sosa, who completed the film as part of their studies in the University of Arkansas Journalism School’s graduate program in documentary filmmaking.
Mlodinow does not possess a car or a television. He rarely uses a telephone, and the filmmakers bought him a prepaid cell phone for the duration of the project so they could keep in touch with him.
But he does own a passion for watching and documenting the birds of Arkansas. He frequently takes public transportation to different places to watch birds, such as the World Peace Wetland Prairie on the city’s south edge and Lake Fayetteville to the northeast.
Sosa said she worked hard to get the often-reclusive man to open up to her in conversation. It meant driving him home from the grocery store or sitting with him on a city bus to build trust and rapport. As the film progressed and Mlodinow grew more accustomed to the camera, several themes emerged. The first is that Mlodinow is singularly passionate about birds. He spends much of his time watching birds, recordings their sounds and logging data into the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s online birding database at ebirds.org.
“He’s so single-minded about it,” Erwin said. It’s such a part of his identity that when Mlodinow calls someone on the phone, he starts with “‘This is Mike the Birdman,’” Erwin said.
That contrasts in interesting ways with the world he lives in, Sosa said. He records the data hoping to document long-term trends in bird behavior.
The film, in some ways, become about “how he exists in a society that’s about instant gratification,” Sosa said.
Erwin, of Fayetteville, thought of Mlodinow as an interview subject after Erwin’s father spent a bit of time as an avid birdwatcher. Through his interactions in that realm, Mlodinow came to be a friend of Erwin’s father, and he made an impression on the younger man.
“He just has this presence about him,” Erwin said.
Erwin, who has completed many films outside of his documentary filmmaking studies, wanted to work on a character study. He recalled Mlodinow and pitched the story to him. He agreed. As the crew watched Mlodinow work in the field, Erwin was stuck by his intensity. Sosa also learned much about the title character. Mlodinow’s work in the birding community and dedication to the craft makes him a respected figure.
“We realized, as much of a hermit as he is, he’s not alone,” Sosa said.
When the film was completed in April, the trio of filmmakers realized they had something worth sharing. They set up a screening and sent out pitches to film festivals around the country.
Erwin is confident there’s traction behind the film.
“I would not be surprised if it made it into a pretty good festival,” he said.
Local audiences will have the chance to see it Tuesday at the Botanical Gardens. Also happening that evening is a live performance by nature- and ecology-loving folk duo Still on the Hill, who supplied the film’s soundtrack. The screening is part of a series of education events taking place at the BGO which are supported by a grant from Tyson Foods.
Admission to Tuesday night’s screening and concert is free.