The Sound and Vision of Kathleen Harris’ Birdsong 

A journalist and documentarian, Kathleen Harris captures both the informative and the human side of complex topics. Born and raised in the US, Harris has lived in Ireland since 2006, and her work as a video journalist for the Irish Times has covered a wide range of topics, including Ireland’s abortion and gay marriage referendums, sexual assault on college campuses, national elections, and grassroots environmental activism. 

Screening this year at the Dublin International Film Festival is her feature documentary Birdsong, which follows the efforts of Irish ornithologist Seán Ronayne. Struck by his mission to record the call of every bird species in Ireland, the film aims to be equally inspiring and cautionary, revealing the beauty and importance of sound, and what listening can tell us about the state of our natural world.  

To that end, we caught up with Harris to listen to her, on how she became in contact with Ronayne, expanding from her Irish Times work and the kinds of stories that she wants to tell.  

Could you describe how it was you became connected with Seán Ronayne and how you first began to cover his work? 

Before I came into documentary film on more of a full-time basis, I was a video journalist at the Irish Times. I did that job for eight years, while I was there back in 2022, my then-boss, Chris Maddaloni, the head of video there spotted a tweet that this guy had posted, saying that he wanted to record the song of every bird species in Ireland. Chris asked me to check this guy out, so I contacted Seán and told him we wanted to do a short video about him for the Irish Times, at the time we were doing portrait videos on people who had interesting jobs. Seán told me to come on down and meet him at dawn in Killarney National Park. I went trekking into the park and found him there in the trees, waiting to see if he could find a woodpecker. Right away, I thought Seán had such an amazing personality. His authenticity struck me, he has such a passion and love for what he does, and he knows so much about it. I thought this quest of his sounded like there was potential in it for a bigger story that we didn’t have the scope to do in the Irish Times project. 

I had a chat with Seán about it and with Ross Whitaker, who ended up being a producer on the project, asking do you think this could be a larger film? Seán was game and Ross said yes. Two years later, here we are! 

Coming from that journalistic background, what was it like to grow this project out into a feature, having Ross in that role as producer, someone who is very experienced with feature documentaries? 

That’s what was so great about being able to go to Ross with the idea. I liked it in theory; I’m interested in stories that explore our relationship with the natural world and can take a personal story and use that to talk about a bigger topic. This is essentially a film about biodiversity and climate change, but it’s through Seán and his very personal story, and it’s quite joyful, and celebratory, which is nice. But I was curious how much it could sustain itself over a full feature length film. In this case, it ended up being a a TV doc for RTE, so it’s an hour, but I wanted to talk to Ross, who has more experience with narrative film where I’m used to short form, his confidence gave me confidence. He was able to help me identify some marks in it, some beats in it. We had a chat with Seán to see what he would like to do, what his schedule was going to look like as he was trying to finish up this project of his. And we picked out moments that we thought would work for the film. 

Seán recorded almost 200 birds, but we don’t show each one of those in the film. We would have been there for a very long time if we had! We picked out some key moments and a lot of it was going off and shooting and seeing what we could get. It’s very Verité in that sense because working with wildlife is very unpredictable, so we did our best to pick out what we thought could be the most interesting bits and went from there. 

The nature of Seán’s project is parallel in some ways to the work you’re doing as a filmmaker – was it a very collaborative process with him? 

Absolutely. This was collaborative throughout; from the day I met Seán to right now when I’m talking to you. I’ve already had, I don’t know how many text exchanges with Seán today, we’re in regular communication. We’ve become friends throughout the process, we’re similar in a respect that we care about these things and are interested in these things, so we’ve just enjoyed chatting with each other about a lot of this. 

Seán has such a good knowledge of this topic, I don’t know how many times throughout the post production process I was taking stills photographs on my phone of various birds or audio recordings of various birds that we had in the edit just to very quickly check with him what bird is this, do we have this right, does this sound match what we’re seeing on screen. I was very keen to get all that very accurate. I think Seán was quite worried, he said that he’s seen a lot of wildlife docs where actually the bird that’s on screen does not match the call. Hopefully we’ve made no mistakes in that respect! Seán was in constant communication with us for that, the recordings in it are his and we’ve worked with the sound mixer, who is also very used to wildlife, we I wanted to make sure Seán felt happy with the project in terms of how he is represented, how his family is represented, how nature is represented and how his work is represented. It was very important to me that we do justice to all of those things. 

Having that personal element and those characters helps the audience to connect to topics that you’re covering. For Birdsong is there a conservationist or environmentalist take away that you’re hoping that audiences are going to have? 

This was a conversation Seán and I had many times because it’s an evolving process. This started two years ago and how much Seán wanted to convey has changed over that time and I, you know, we had to update and make sure we were doing what he was comfortable with throughout. He didn’t start really as an activist and he didn’t really want to be seen in that space, only because he didn’t want to offend anybody and he didn’t want to feel like he was pointing the finger at anybody. I think as time has gone on and he’s gotten more involved in, just by the nature of the work he’s assumed an activistic role of a sort, he’s been doing a lot of talks, people ask him questions about what the problems are. 

I very much call myself an environmentalist and I have my own perspective on these things, but I also wanted to make sure that the overall message and tone of the film matched with where Seán is in that respect, so I think. I think me and Seán are in the same place with this, I think our desire out of it is in line with each other. We wanted to cover some tough topics in the film, there are some moments of sadness and some pretty tough statistics in there that are hard to swallow, but ultimately, we wanted it to be celebratory rather than damning, something that people can feel inspired by rather than just ohh God, that was depressing. It is activistic in the sense that we really care about our nature world, and the more people like Seán we can have on our screens, the better. I hope that’s inspiring to people, there’s a place for pointing out problems but there’s also a space to show what we’re doing the work for.  

You’ve had work screen at various festivals in Ireland, the Film Fleadh, Belfast, Cork and now DIFF. How significant is support from festivals in getting work in front of audiences where you’re covering these kinds of topics? 

The support from festivals is invaluable. The more avenues, the more paths that you have to get your film in front of an audience, the better. I’m thrilled that the film is going to be on RTE at some point as well, that hopefully will be a big audience. Different platforms are there for different types of audiences, so it’ll be great to be in the festival where there’s a concentration on film, Seán will be able to do a Q&A there at the festival, we’ll meet with people afterwards, Seán won’t have that same opportunity when it’s out on television, of course. To be there in person and to connect with people is fantastic. Also for me to get to meet other film makers who are interested in the same type of topics, to see the kind of work that I’m interested in making and be able to talk to them about their own work, it’s great to be able to make connections with people like that.  

And just after spending so much time and energy on a film, you know, I think every filmmaker is thrilled to see it up on a big screen. For this film particularly with the sound being such a a key part to it, there’s definitely moments in the film where there’s some great visuals captured by our amazing DP Ross Bartley, that, combined with Seán’s beautiful sound will be such an experience for audiences in a cinema that you won’t necessarily get at home. 

You expanded Birdsong because you could feel there was more scope on this topic. Having now done a feature film, are you looking to do more feature-length work going forward or does it always depend on the topic and the scope within that topic?  

Yeah, I think it does depend on the topic. I have different stories I’d like to pursue, and the story dictates the approach to it and the platform and what makes sense for it for sure. I’d love to make feature stuff. I’d love to maybe do a series. But it very much depends on the individual idea that determines that, so we’ll see and it depends on the person, the character.  

With Seán’s story, I loved that he is a really just authentic, interesting person who I could just listen to all day and I thought ohh I’m pretty sure this guy would be of interest to other people. I wanted to get him out there into the world and I’m so delighted that he was up for it. I love people who take on these mad tasks for themselves, the fact that Seán given himself this huge project to do on his own, he works as an ornithologist, but this was kind of totally on his own buck and in his own time. He just felt driven to do it, and I love that. I love stories about people who kind of choose to do these things because they just can’t help themselves. Whatever project I take on, I’d like to feel like it’s covering a topic that I think is important, or could be an interesting conversation. If it matters to me, hopefully it matters to other people, it’s combining those great characters with an interesting story and hopefully a topic that is important.  

Hearing so much birdsong and mapping audio to specific birds, double checking, do you find now that you’re a lot more tuned in – when you’re out for a walk can you recognize particular birds and get attuned to the nature sounds around you? 

Definitely, but usually it’s “God I wish I could remember what bird that was”, because I’m still pretty useless at it. I wish I was a bit better at it. Actually the birds that I’m probably the most familiar with are the birds that you don’t hear too often, because the ones that we focused on are the really rare birds in these far-flung, remote corners of Ireland, so I we know them really well. A lot of the common stuff I still need to get better at. 

I have weird moments now here and there. My family live in Strandhill, Sligo and the beach there is really lovely. I was going for a walk with my sister one day and the ocean running over the rocks and then retreating made this amazing, loud sound. I was just thinking I wish I had a mic with me right now, that sound is just amazing. I’m more of a visual person, so I’ve never had a desire to just go and record a sound. But since doing this project with Seán, I just had this feeling, I want to bottle that sound. I like being out in nature. I do a lot of hiking, camping, all these things. But somehow I neglected sound in that. I think a lot of people maybe are more visual, we kind of take audio for granted. 

These days it’s like we’re trying to cut out sound. Our headphones cancel noise, and we need to be listening to something all the time. This film is a good reminder to listen and connect with the world and the sounds around us. 

Yeah, exactly. And natural sounds, because there’s so much more as Seán likes to say anthropogenic sound in the world. I don’t think you can get on public transport these days without hearing a few people’s phones playing videos or music, there’s traffic and construction and all these sounds that actually stress out our nervous systems. Natural sounds do the opposite, they de-stress us. There are public spaces now like airports that are introducing birdsong to de-stress people travelling. The more we can tune into that, the better. 

Birdsong screens at the Light House Cinema at 8.30pm, Thursday February 29th as part of the 2024 Dublin International Film Festival. Tickets are available now HERE. The documentary will be shown also on RTE later in 2024.  

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