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by Lela Scott MacNeil
June 18th, 2010

See The Commoners TONIGHT at Rooftop Films: “New York Non-Fiction.” Tickets available at the door.

Tonight, as a part of our “New York Non-Fiction” show, Rooftop Films will be screening The Commoners, directed by Penny Lane and Jessica Bardsley. The film is  charming and insightful and its subject is quintessentially New York. It tracks an invasive bird species brought to this country by Eugene Schieffelin, a wealthy eccentric who wanted to bring Shakespeare’s world to the new world by putting every bird mentioned in a Shakespeare play into Central Park. Through their account of the European Starling’s journey from Europe to Central Park, Penny and Jessica explore the history of immigration and urban development in the bird’s adopted home.

Rooftop Films spoke with Penny and Jessica about what we can learn about New York City and our collective history from a creature as common as a starling.

Rooftop Films: Give a brief description of your film for those who haven’t seen it.

Penny Lane: The Commoners is an essay film that makes connections between natural history, social history, immigration, language and common ideas about “invasive species.” It was inspired by the 1890 release of a group of European Starlings in Central Park by a man who wanted to bring to America all the birds of Shakespeare.

RF: How did you become interested in the European Starling?

PL: One of the things you do when you are a birdwatcher is you keep a “life list” of every bird you’ve seen since you started looking.  I started thinking about how I’d never bothered to include three birds that were so common that they (in the words of Jessica) “defied the logic of birdwatching.”  These birds were the House Sparrow, Rock Dove (yes, the pigeon!), and the starling.  I had just moved to Manhattan from a more rural place, and found myself more and more interested in the birds that I’d never cared enough about to look at before.  When I started writing and reading, I found that the starling had the most interesting story.

RF: How did you go about making the intellectual connections that run through the film?

PL: The first thing I did was approach Jessica with the idea. We’d made another bird-oriented short a few years back and had wanted to work together again.  I love her writing, her voice, and her drawing.  The two of us worked through all aspects of the film together, but we also tried to give the other room to explore the areas we were most passionate about: for Jessica, writing, and for myself, editing.

I always do a lot of reading for films.  I love research and I love archives.  I made endless notes on everything I could find that seemed even vaguely connected to our story.  And Jessica and I were always aware that the film wasn’t really about starlings, or Eugene Schieffelin; we knew that we were interested in these ideas metaphorically.  We wanted to take the story and give it an intellectual and emotional twist that might surprise people.

RF: The film is screening in Rooftop’s annual “New York Non-Fiction” program. What makes your film uniquely New York?

PL: The European Starling’s entire history in this country is based in Central Park.  And since we present the starling as kind of quintessential American immigrant success story, you could also make the connection to NYC’s rich immigrant history.  Eugene Schieffelin was a scion of New York society, and his attitudes and behaviors shed interesting light on the values and mores of wealthy Gilded Age New Yorkers.

RF: Tell us about the illustrations used in the film.

PL: Jessica made all of them!  I can’t draw at all!  One thing that was crucial about the drawings was that we could not find a picture of Eugene Schieffelin, and not for lack of trying.  I tried to contact his existing relatives, we visited his grave, I spent weeks in archives looking for a picture.  So in the end, Jessica had the important task of representing this man who is historically invisible.

RF: Are you a full-time filmmaker? If not, what else are you up to?

PL: I’ve been teaching film and video full time for 5 years (first at Hampshire College and then Williams College).  I am taking next year off to work on other things!!

Jessica Bardsley: I’m presently a MFA candidate at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the Film, Video and New Media department.

RF: Tell us about your next project.

PL: Oh boy, there are many, but they are all in too early a stage of development to really talk about intelligently.  This past year has been all about moving, renovating a house, and planning my wedding.  Ask me again in the fall!

JB: I have a few projects in the works, but my most developed work in progress is a ghost story about the Florida Everglades and its myths/forgotten histories. I also recently completed an experimental ethnography on South Korea and my relationship with a close friend who lives there.

RF: What excites you about screening your film at Rooftop?

PL: What DOESN’T excite me about my screening at Rooftop?  I love Rooftop, and I am thrilled to be part of it.  Thanks!

JB: EVERYTHING. I’ve always loved attending Rooftop screenings in the past. They are feel-good events with great films and I’m so happy to be a part of it.

See “The Commoners” TONIGHT at 8pm at Rooftop Films: “New York Non-Fiction” on the Lower East Side. Tickets available at the door. More info here.


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Rooftop Films is a New York based non-profit whose mission is to engage diverse communities by showing independent movies in outdoor locations, producing new films, coordinating youth media education, and renting equipment at low cost to artists.

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