Darkness Calls

Robert Nugent’s Night Parrot Stories and Contemporary Documentary Making

Ostensibly a film about director Robert Nugent’s hunt for a long-thought-lost species of bird, Night Parrot Stories is, more significantly, a meditation on historical and scientific constructions, the clash of white and Aboriginal cultures, and humanity’s place in – and continued destruction of – nature. Lauren Carroll Harris dives into this intricately woven documentary and dissects its manifold messages.

What makes a documentary today? What do we expect documentaries to do? Night Parrot Stories (2016) is a film about director Robert Nugent’s search for ‘that bird lost in the darkness’.[1]‘Parrotology’, Night Parrot Stories website, <http://nightparrotstories.com>, accessed 2 August 2017. Despite its call being heard across the desert after dark, the night parrot is a mysterious Australian bird that had evaded human contact for around eighty years until a 1979 sighting; in the late 1800s, it was hunted by European collectors, who prized its vivid green colouring, and it has been tormented by changes to its habitats since colonial invasion. Alone with a video camera, Nugent goes to places where the night parrot is believed to reside to find out whether the species is extinct or just elusive. He speaks with those who have heard its call, gathers remnants of its traces, and encounters a mix of different views regarding the bird’s fate from Western scientists and Aboriginal elders. The stories he assembles build to a larger narrative that relates the bird’s fabled disappearance to the themes of ecological disaster and the possibility of non-human perspectives on the world. The resulting cinematic text is an experiment in nonfiction cinema and a record of what happens when – as the filmmaker described it at the Australian Anthropological Society (AAS) conference in December 2016 – ‘humans bump into the non-human world’. Night Parrot Stories is an exquisitely crafted film, intimate and low-budget, an audiovisual trace of its filmmaker venturing solo into the desert and finding his story. It’s a personal narrative about big-picture issues, couched in an unconventional documentary format that recalls the curiosity and exploratory work of Chantal Akerman.

‘Nothing comes without its world’ – so goes the quote by scholar Donna Haraway that follows Night Parrot Stories’ opening shot. The world of the night parrot has changed significantly in the last few centuries, and Nugent’s film is as much about these changes as the bird itself. ‘I thought that I was living in a particular time,’ says the director in voiceover. ‘That period of time was called the Holocene.’ This epoch stretches from around 12,000 years ago to the present, incorporating the retreat of the last ice age and the further warming of the Earth in contemporary times with the onslaught of climate change. ‘Then the outside world intruded,’ Nugent continues. ‘An aeroplane, the MH370, went missing in the ocean […] The clues I’d been left with became fragmented facts.’ Tracing fragments from the searches for both the night parrot and the MH370, Nugent ties together these disappearances – one, a tiny native bird; the other, a giant mechanical bird of metal – as two facets of the same era: not the Holocene, but rather a new age of man-made disasters, of extinction and destruction.

Stories about the night parrot

Nugent speaks to people who have seen the parrot and know what to look for, and their descriptions come in short, disconnected grabs. Unadorned by the usual documentary conventions used for talking heads (captions citing names and titles, in particular), the interviewees’ words and identities begin to slip together.

‘There’s nothing spectacular about it, of course. I suppose the most spectacular thing is that he’s not there. He’s very hard to find,’ recounts an old white fella, in his house. Another old bloke shows Nugent how to look for feathers and skeletal remains in dried dingo dung. ‘That tiny black one,’ says one Aboriginal elder, pointing to a diagram in a book. ‘It crouches down in the grass,’ suggests another elder, in the Arrernte language. ‘Is it green or brown?’ Her friend responds that the parrot is green because it’s in the grass, and its greenness is a disguise. Sitting cross-legged in the desert, the women promise to get Nugent a picture of the bird emerging from the grass. An Aboriginal man tells his people’s story of the night parrot’s disappearance:

Lightning and hail fell on the two beings who had made the storm to find the bird, and the storm picked them up and threw them to the water over there. And the fire was extinguished, finished – but no bird! The storm changed everything for those beings. So they continued the searching, there, here, yet the bird refused to be seen […] so they cried for that lost bird – nothing. And they searched the sky – absent. Fly there. No. Lost. Beyond the water.

Later in the film, we hear the rest of his story:

The parrot always be there, keeping an eye on those young men. The night parrots, who were standing guard over the kangaroos, were known only by the sound of their wings. In all the stories passed through all the different languages, the birds were never seen.

Elsewhere in the film, additional fragmented Indigenous voices flesh out this tale – ‘He go sideways, night parrot. That way, he shows his colours’ – and an elder sings the bird’s call. In these ways, Night Parrot Stories archives some of the Indigenous explanations of the bird’s disappearance, the suggestion being that colonisation and capitalism have changed these communities’ stories, some of which now cover recent historical occurrences. This respectful chronicling of Aboriginal knowledge, the film seems to tell us, is one important job for documentary cinema.

Scientific perspectives

Alongside these subjective snapshots of the night parrot, Nugent offers another form of archiving: the work of the researchers who document, categorise and analyse the natural world. In dusty, fluoro-lit labs, we see numbered night parrot specimens and an X-ray of a headless skeleton found in the last few years. But the scientific trail goes cold: ‘It would appear there once was a night parrot,’ says Nugent. ‘History had conspired against it. I was sixty years too late.’ Significantly, Nugent treats Western archives and Indigenous stories with equivalence, overtly messing with narrative and the conventional Western conception of history as linear. He makes us think about this uncertainty in relation to climate change, the campaigns against which have rested on Western arguments for scientific proof rather than Indigenous ecological intelligence. At the AAS conference, Nugent explained that, given his pursuit of Western linear histories of the night parrot’s disappearance had led him to a dead end, he was forced to turn to what he calls ‘neglected narratives’: ‘How could I incorporate Indigenous knowledge and lost knowledge? Films are partial.’

To this deduction, Nugent adds the uncertainty of knowledge itself. In the documentary, an unnamed woman says, ‘Sometimes you start to doubt yourself. Did I really see it? Was it the night parrot I saw?’ The old man searching for parrot remains in dingo dung concurs – though, for him, it has become an obsession:

You’ve got just a vague possibility of finding night parrots’ feathers over here. If you find a bird skull, most I’ve found are generally budgerigars and zebra finches, but you’ve always got a chance on the night parrot […] Doesn’t mean I’m right.

Here, we see how the film’s storytelling choices and many-voiced subplots are led by a rejection of didacticism. Nugent knowingly adopts some tropes of documentary making – the filmmaker character he calls ‘the solitary explorer’, the conventions of an essay-style film – but discards others, including the development of a traditional narrative and the inclusion of a trustworthy narrator. ‘It’s very hard to put yourself in a film,’ Nugent said at the AAS conference. Rather than positioning himself at the centre of Night Parrot Stories as its impartial, authoritative narrator – as would, say, Michael Moore or John Pilger – Nugent joins the many existing, fragmented voices expressing doubt and uncertainty.

In light of his inability to verify the stories he is hearing and the evidence he is seeing, Nugent emphasises the arbitrary constructedness of historical narrative and the importance of vulnerability; in voiceover, he points out: ‘I find there is a problem looking back into stories from an unstable present.’ Though he visits the sites where the bird has been spotted, follows the elders’ instructions and sifts through dingo dung for skeletal remains, he finds nothing. In a parallel digression, he raises the metaphor of MH370 again: ‘The plane isn’t where it was supposed to be,’ he says, even in an era of location devices and constant surveillance. If we can’t find a massive, trackable mechanical bird, how will we ever find the mysterious, tiny night parrot in this vast continent?

Challenging Western views on ecology

In a 2015 interview, director James Benning proposed that young filmmakers focus less on trying to make good films than on finding new ways of seeing.[2]See Courtney Dawson, ‘Cinematic Double Play: An Interview with James Benning’, Outtake, 25 September 2015, <https://www.tribecashortlist.com/blog/2015/09/25/cinematic-double-play-an-interview-with-james-benning/>, accessed 7 August 2017. Rather than attempting to establish an authoritative platform from which to speak, Nugent himself reaches for an alternative visual language for the land and sky around us – the same land and sky that may be hiding the night parrot. The words of the late critic John Berger offer a key to unlocking what is going on in Nugent’s images – in the first episode of his aptly titled 1972 television series Ways of Seeing, Berger asserts:

The process of seeing paintings, or seeing anything else, is less spontaneous and natural than we tend to believe. A large part of seeing depends upon habit and convention. All the paintings of the tradition used the convention of perspective, which is unique to European art. Now, perspective centres everything on the eye of the beholder. It is like a beam from a lighthouse – only, instead of light travelling outwards, appearances travel in. And our tradition of art called those appearances ‘reality’. Perspective makes the eye the centre of the visible world.

In turning the filmic frame on its head and playing with scale, Nugent continually challenges European perspectival conventions and their solipsistic view of the natural world. Though he is using contemporary Western filmmaking technologies to collect and tell his stories, he also interrogates the values, assumptions and claims inherent in Western ways of seeing. Through the film’s first image of a tree-turned-shrub, Nugent told AAS conference attendees, he is warning viewers that ‘the perspective’s going to be switched around’ in Night Parrot Stories.

In similar interstitial shots, Nugent shows nature in moments of change or disturbance – the light on a desert meadow shifting as unseen clouds drift overhead; a gecko in close-up, its scales prickling and contracting as a gravelly truck zooms past in the foreground. When his subjects speak, they are often positioned with a tree’s shadow dappling across their faces in a way that merges them with their environments. Through this collection of moments in which time passes and old moments give way to new ones, the film’s tone becomes one of expectant grief. ‘I was told this story,’ relays Nugent. ‘There was an old woman who would speak to her cockatoo in Pitta Pitta, her language, because there was no-one else who understood her. And when that woman died, the cockatoo was the last speaker of that language.’ Towards the end of the film, we see two passing images, un-narrated, of a species whose loss is certain and notorious: the Tasmanian tiger. Gently, perceptibly, Nugent is pointing to an anticipated loss of more fauna, flora, places and knowledge, which global warming is already causing.

‘I wondered if the Voyager spacecraft, somewhere above us in the solar system, was travelling forwards or backwards in time,’ says Nugent in voiceover, speaking of another flying object. ‘On the spacecraft was a golden record with human voices and birdsong as well as directions to Earth. So, when they make their way here, they may speak to birds before us.’ In this sense, the fate of the bird is neither here nor there; it is one of innumerable extinctions brought on by human changes to the climate, one small disaster of many.

‘The artist is someone who pays attention and reports back,’ posits Benning.[3]James Benning, quoted in Scott MacDonald, ‘Testing Your Patience: An Interview with James Benning’, Artforum International, vol. 46, no. 1, September 2007, p. 435. Visually representing the Australian landscape (and air, and light) in different ways; placing Western and Indigenous methods of understanding change in equivalence; casting the usually authoritative documentary narrator as a fallible human, wandering the desert alone; piling fragments of voices together without the usual talking-heads conventions … Nugent has created what is, to me, a major work of recent Australian independent cinema, yet also one of the most overlooked. Its itinerant journey has evaded most of the country’s film festivals and critics – which is a shame, though I hope this can be remedied by subsequent distribution and critical attention. Night Parrot Stories is as much a documentary as an art film, a personal diary about doubt, a search party, an exercise in myth-making and a requiem for what might be lost.


1 ‘Parrotology’, Night Parrot Stories website, <http://nightparrotstories.com>, accessed 2 August 2017.
2 See Courtney Dawson, ‘Cinematic Double Play: An Interview with James Benning’, Outtake, 25 September 2015, <https://www.tribecashortlist.com/blog/2015/09/25/cinematic-double-play-an-interview-with-james-benning/>, accessed 7 August 2017.
3 James Benning, quoted in Scott MacDonald, ‘Testing Your Patience: An Interview with James Benning’, Artforum International, vol. 46, no. 1, September 2007, p. 435.