jump to navigation

On human potential. June 29, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
Tags: , , , , ,

Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood coincidentally saw two documentary films this weekend, courtesy of Netflix, that we think have life-changing potential. They are “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill” and “Genghis Blues.” Collectively, we can only say “Wow.”

The first documentary, “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill,” is about Mark Bittner, a guy who came to San Francisco in the Flower Child era to become a famous musician, ended up being a street person, and eventually found his life work documenting a colony of cherry-headed conures on Telegraph Hill. (The whole thing almost gave poor Silence a heart attack until she realized that the film wasn’t about Mark Bittman, the famous cookbook author.) 

Mark Bittner’s actual music was so awful we instantly realized why only his cherry-headed conure Mingus enjoyed it. But his intelligence, sensitivity, and powers of observation were also obvious. We were thrilled by the movie’s surprise ending—the documentary filmmaker fell in love with Mark and the two of them married a year later—and we were also thrilled to learn that the documentary and Mark’s book about the parrots had become huge hits.

The second documentary, “Genghis Blues,” chronicled how a blind bluesman named Paul Pena had found his calling after his beloved wife Babe had died of renal failure. It’s horrifying enough to be blind without having your wife die. Pena chose to try to get himself past his grief by learning other languages via radio, and in the process, stumbled on Tuva throatsinging. The Tuva are a tribe of horsemen who were extant and valued during the time of Genghis Khan, and who have continued to try to preserve their traditions even as they’ve been absorbed into Russian rule.

One of those traditions is throatsinging, in which the singers are able to produce amazing, truly mind-bending sounds. Paul Pena’s imagination was captured by them. He was somehow able to teach himself both throatsinging (our friend Ben tried this after watching the movie and dares you to see if you can do it) and the Tuva language. Unlike Mark Bittner, Paul Pena was a greatly gifted musician; his blues are as inspired as his throatsinging. In the documentary, we follow Paul as he travels to Tuva to participate in a throatsinging competition and enjoy his triumphing both in his area of choice, a low-voiced form of throatsinging that earned him the nickname “Earthquake” among his Tuva fans, and in the “audience favorite” category.

Our friend Ben and Silence acknowledge that these documentaries are, ultimately, what might qualify as feel-good films. Two very bright and gifted men who are seriously down on their luck find joy and purpose; we can all be inspired and rejoice. But hey, why shouldn’t we be inspired and rejoice? Are we street people? Are we blind men whose beloved wives have died of a painful, incurable disease? If these men can remake their lives in such inspiring ways, good God, people, can’t those of us who have so much more than they do something meaningful for ourselves?

Yes. Yes we can. We can, if we really make the effort to find what gives us joy and then give ourselves to it. These films are ultimately about the transformative power of passion—passion in its constructive, not destructive, sense—and the strange ways that people can discover their life’s passion if they’re open to its manifestation.

Silence and I have both sacrificed comparatively high-powered, high-paying corporate careers for this very goal, so these films spoke very loudly to us. We believe that happiness and fulfilment are the greatest gifts life offers most of us. We recommend that you see these documentaries and think about whether your own life offers as much as the lives these films portray. If not, perhaps they’ll set you on a road you’ve not forseen, to rediscover a childhood passion or discover a new one, to experience transformation in your own life. And of course, one of the great delights of both these films is seeing the joy and transformation Mark’s and Paul’s passions brought to the other lives they touched. Joy and passion are contagious. It’s great to see people catching something good!