Feathered Cocaine operates from a starting point similar to that of last year’s Oscar-winning The Cove, concentrating on a man striving to halt the animal-cruelty wrongs perpetrated by an industry to which his life’s work was related. In this instance, that individual is Alan Parrot, who, after a childhood in Maine spent obsessing over falcons, snuck away at 18 to Iran and almost immediately thereafter became the head falcon trainer of the Shah. His subsequent career led him to legally export falcons for the president of the U.A.E., a practice he suspended because of the lucrative black market for smuggling the birds in the Middle East (falcons command as much as $1 million in some quarters) that today threatens many falcon populations with extinction. Utilizing numerous one-on-one interviews, Thorkell Hardarson and Öm Marino Arnarson’s documentary spends its early portions on Parrot’s endeavors to outlaw this profitable illegal bird commerce, which he vehemently opposes on a combination of moral and political grounds.
Alas, from the outset, the filmmakers stumble in trying to cogently outline their subject’s motivations. As fuzzily conveyed via scattershot sequences, Parrot’s decision to combat smuggling stemmed in part from the trade’s escalation after the 1991 fall of the U.S.S.R. (which has led to unchecked bird poaching), in part from the U.A.E.’s practice of genetically engineering falcons (which has muddied their gene pool and exacerbated their extermination), and in part from his belief in the birds’ heightened perceptiveness, sensitivity, and all-around nobility. Muddling its depiction of what exactly drives Parrot, the film quickly loses focus. His sadness over the birds’ harsh treatment is sufficiently seen during separate bouts of crying, in which he pleads for help in saving his beloved falcons. Yet more basic questions—who he now works for, exactly how the smuggling trade routes operate, whether he was ethically troubled by legally exporting the birds when he first began the practice—are left frustratingly opaque.
Equally exasperating is Hardarson and Arnarson’s reliance on copious on-screen text that would have been better handled via narration, though Feathered Cocaine really skids off the rails at the midway mark, at which point it sharply shifts its attention to the links between falcon smuggling and Osama Bin Laden. Skimming historical context and stringing together facts and conjecture with a gracelessness that would gall even Michael Moore, Hardarson and Arnarson lay out a convoluted scenario in which falcon camps serve as centers of business transactions between terrorists and Middle Eastern governments, the U.S. government knows Bin Laden’s exact whereabouts in Iran but refuses to apprehend him (lest they rankle their Saudi financial benefactors), and Parrot is a courageous lone crusader stymied by joint West-East forces in his heroic quest to personally nab the Al-Qaeda mastermind.
Despite a few former military men also chiming in with corroborative theories and opinions asserted as if they were unassailable truths, the film’s conspiratorial case is primarily made through Parrot discussing his supposed—albeit never lucidly explicated—bedrock evidence. While Parrot’s analysis appears sporadically sound, the overarching argument he makes, founded on bits and pieces of tenuously associated information arranged to suggest cause-and-effect relationships, proves specious, an impression exacerbated by dubious insinuations that any government officials who refused to speak on camera did so to conceal their culpability. And then, with five minutes to go, Feathered Cocaine simply drops its entire War on Terror discussion, choosing to suddenly revert back to its original, apolitical save-the-falcons argument. It’s as if the doc had temporarily forgotten what it was about, which—in light of its unconvincing theses and structural sloppiness—is very little aside from shoddy nonfiction filmmaking.
Feathered Cocaine will play on April 26, 27, 30, and May 2 as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. For more information click here.