Saturday, April 24, 2010

Tribeca: "Feathered Cocaine"

The documentary Feathered Cocaine operates at a peculiar junction of fact, advocacy, and outrageous conspiracy theory; suffice it to say, it’s not a smooth mixture. It begins as a simple biographical study of Alan Howell Parrot, one of the world’s foremost falconers. The tall, bright, fiercely passionate Sikh has dedicated his life to the preservation of falcons—particularly end the lucrative but cruel smuggling of the birds of prey to the Persian Gulf, which has led to regional extinction. As a younger man, he operated a legal business exporting the birds. He’s now afraid that he “opened Pandora’s box.”

All of that stuff is interesting, full of good explainers of the motives, the logistics, and the profitability. It’s smoothly made—somewhat dry and boilerplate, yes, but intriguing. And the film has its fair share of juicy investigative stuff, like the revelation that Prince Bandar bin Sultan (aka “Bandar Bush”) was himself caught smuggling falcons in 1986 (they even dig up the $150K check he wrote to pay his fine to the Department of Justice). The film’s middle section focuses on Parrot’s efforts to rally support for his cause, to save the species, and his tireless efforts are admirable. “It’s such a battle,” he says, “Money corrupts everybody.” No arguments there.

But then it takes a hard turn in the last half hour. The always-fascinating Robert Baer (the former CIA field officer who inspired the Clooney character in Syriana) pops up to explain that falcon hunting camps are where business is done in the Middle East; meetings and cash hand-offs are the norm, and presumably, that’s where Osama bin Laden took care of at least some of his financial and logistical planning. Bin Laden was at a falcon hunting camp in southern Afghanistan when Clinton administration officials nearly took him out in 1999. Feathered Cocaine’s filmmakers contend that Richard Clarke advised Clinton to stand down for nefarious reasons of his own—that he didn’t want to upset senior officials from the United Arab Emirates government. Why? Well, the on-screen narration pointedly informs us, Clarke’s firm now counts the UAE among its clients. So Clarke clearly was… thinking ahead to who he’d need on his client list a decade later? Pretty thin basis for those kinds of allegations against one of the few public officials who was willing to say that the United States might have screwed the pooch in the run-up to 9/11.

But the film goes deeper into the weeds. Parrot says he has a source, a professional smuggler (though not of falcons, of course) who says that bin Laden is in Iran, and the Iranian government is protecting him, and he’s gone falcon hunting with bin Laden several times over the past few years. We watch an interview with this source, a sketchy-acting dude in a ski mask and sunglasses. He doesn’t seem the most reliable source. Parrot then proclaims that bin Laden’s falcons all have tracking devices on them, so if we were to go to Iran during hunting season, the signals from those falcons could be used to triangulate his location. Uh huh. He claims to have given all of this information to the government, but he’s been ignored by both the previous and the current administrations, so clearly, our government doesn’t actually want to catch Osama bin Laden. He would go himself (he says early in the film that he thinks of bin Laden primarily as not a mass murderer, but a falcon smuggler—a moment that, in retrospect, should have sounded a louder alarm in my head), but he says he’s been warned that if he goes to Iran, U.S. intelligence will alert Iranian officials, who will throw him in their jails. Uh huh.

The transition from straightforward documentary to vessel of wild, buckshot-spraying conspiracy theory is, to put it mildly, a rocky one; it sort of blindsides the viewer, who has been lulled into taking in information, instead of second-guessing the tinfoil-hat action on screen. Call me na├»ve, but I don’t buy it; there’s no motivation for our government keeping bin Laden hid that would outweigh the political capital afforded to whichever administration would have a big prime-time press conference and display the terrorist’s severed head on a stick—and if there is one, this movie doesn’t provide it. Towards the end, as Parrot bemoans his fate as the great stifled truth-seeker, it all just seems self-inflating—and a little irresponsible.

Sorry for inserting politics here; I didn’t expect to, but then again, I didn’t expect Feathered Cocaine to be such a politically provocative picture. But those odd shifts keep the film from landing, even as a curiosity, and after spewing all that stuff out on the screen, it strangely turns back into a “love the birds” nature documentary in its closing moments. It’s an odd final note for this strange, uneven, herky-jerky film.

"Feathered Cocaine" is screening on April 26 and 29 as part of the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.

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