You can tell a lot about a director by the way they frame tragedy in their work. As with all discussions about death and dying, it’s all about striking the right tone for the right audience. A director who wields a blunt tool runs the risk of exacerbating the grief and overwhelming the viewer with trauma, but if they swing too far the other way, wrapping the sadness in cotton wool, it can belittle and nullify the event. For documentarian Sally Aitken, tragedy and death are an inevitable part of our daily lives. In her filmography, these ineluctable and indelible moments are treated with respect as Aitken and her collaborators tenderly give trauma space to breathe on screen.
In Playing with Sharks, Aitken’s joyous celebration of environmentalist Valerie Taylor’s life, Aitken and editor Adrian Rostirolla intersperse archival footage of Ron Taylor amidst scenes of Valerie in their home, and in their home away from home: the ocean. Aitken presents Ron’s passing initially as a mournful experience before it transitions into a point of reflection about the state of our physical impermanence and the need to make a positive impact while we can. Aitken utilises this footage to embrace the understanding that as the grief of Ron’s passing remains, it augments Valerie’s life to act as a reminder of their shared experiences and how they have shaped the world around them.
In Hot Potato: The Story of the Wiggles, the 9/11 tragedy unexpectedly impacts the jovial entertainers’ journey. For a film that’s about a group of musicians who sing kids songs, the presence of a crumbling World Trade Centre tower is initially an alarming one. Its presence reinforces Aitken’s thematic thread throughout her work: how people can unexpectedly shape the world around them. The attacks came at a time when the Wiggles were about to tour America for the first time, leading to moments of soul-searching where they were unsure whether they should go ahead with the tour. Ultimately, they decided that the Wiggles was what America needed at that time, and their concerts became a moment of salvation for a grieving nation, especially for one widower, Jackie Cannizzaro, who lost her firefighter husband due to the attacks.
Hot Potato would still be a fine entry in Sally Aitken’s filmography without the presence of the Jackie recounting the unexpected catharsis that she experienced when she met the Wiggles on their tour, but with her presence, the film reminds us that comfort can come from unexpected places. We’re reminded that joy and happiness are the essential cousins to grief and tragedy, with the two bouncing against each other on a see saw as we move through life. This thematic thread runs through most of Sally’s work, creating an emotional wavelength that is easy to sit with and becomes all the more memorable for it.
Which brings us to Sally Aitken’s latest film, Every Little Thing. Here, we’re introduced to Terry Masear, a dedicated soul who operates the Los Angeles Hummingbird Rescue, a home-run rehab facility for the regions injured and juvenile hummingbirds. Weighing only a few grams, and barely fitting into the palm of a hand, the hummingbird is a marvel of avian evolution; it can hover in one spot, fly vertically and horizontally in straight lines, and beats its wings some 80 times a second. To watch a hummingbird simply exist is to become transfixed and left in awe as to how this wonder of nature lives its life.
The combined cinematography of Nathan Barlow, Dan Freene, and Ann Johnson Prum accentuates this wonder. Through their eyes we’re brought into the world of hummingbirds. We see what they see through ephemeral moments of flowers wilting or in bloom which amplify the death and regeneration of nature. It becomes an alluring, hypnotic, and soothing experience. The ever-present Los Angeles sunshine beams down on the world, with the cinematography team capturing its refractions as it shimmers on the hummingbird’s feathers, exploding into a kaleidoscope of colour that takes your breath away. It instantly becomes clear why Terry has dedicated her life to caring for these birds.
Of course, nature does not exist in isolation, with the creep of civilisation bringing a bevy of dangers and obstacles that impact the lives of the Los Angeles hummingbirds. As the human visitors to the Los Angeles Hummingbird Rescue ferry their fractured and frazzled bird patients to Terry with all manner of injuries and upsets. We meet our cast of feathered characters: Wasabi, Cactus, Jimmy, the Sidney twins, Sugar Baby, Mikhail and Alexa, Raisin, and Larry Bird. Terry welcomes her patients and their escorts into her home, and with her gentle-carer voice, she walks through the questions of what happened, how long they’ve been injured, and most importantly, what the person delivering the bird can expect to happen during Terry’s care.
Terry is well aware that the people who find injured birds want to feel like saviours, leading her to dub them ‘co-parents’. It’s a supportive title to give their rather thankless role, but it’s also an important one that acts as a way of instilling trust in the carer system. I worked as a veterinary nurse for eight years, and during that time I met countless ‘co-parents’ who carried a level of distrust for both vet hospitals and wildlife care facilities believing that wanted to euthanise every injured animal that came through their doors. This apprehension led suburban saviours to feel that they knew best, caring for injured birds or lizards in their bathroom with a concoction of homemade remedies that varied from sugar water and cat food for juvenile magpies to slices of ham for bob tails. When the animals didn’t thrive like they expected them to after a week in their care, they would eventually bring them into the hospital, only to find that their juvenile magpie had a gullet full of throat worm and had been enduring the pain of an unnoticed wing injury that had turned necrotic with nothing to be done to save them. The suburban saviour system isn’t always fallible, but when it is, it’s truly devastating for the nurse or carer who has to usher the creature away from their pain.
Sally Aitken uses the crossroads between carer and suburban saviour to reflect Terry’s ethos as a wildlife rehab facilitator: death is a part of the caring journey and it’s best addressed in a pragmatic manner. Sugar Baby is one such suburban saviour hummingbird who comes into Terry’s care. Instead of taking the bird to rehab when they first find it, the well-meaning individuals instead decide to look after it themselves, effectively dousing the juvenile in sugar water and causing its feathers to stick together and lose their dander. In a character-revealing moment, Terry gently talks her way through her frustrations and anger, dismantling why this kind of suburban saviour care is harmful for the birds. It can be a difficult thing to not carry a level of visible resentment or anger towards people who behave this way, but it’s also important for carers and nurses that those feelings aren’t entertained and that a level of resilience and self-care is maintained. Bitterness is the enemy of support and has no place in a caring system, a point which is just as important as realising that you cannot save every animal that comes your way.
Terry knows that Sugar Baby is doomed from the moment they come into her care, but she persists, seeing the fight for life that the hummingbird has. While Sugar Baby’s time with Terry is limited, the other residents of her domestic rehab facility are fortunate to undergo a regime of exercises and socialisation and a steady syringe-fed diet of nutrients. As with many carers, Terry’s home becomes the hummingbird’s home. Her kitchen becomes a surrogate residence for the critically ill birds and one bathroom transforms into an avian rehab-resort where the custom-made cages sit. It’s here that some of the birds undergo flight training, with Terry using a stick to guide the birds into the unique hummingbird style of flying.
As Terry comments, “I’m without children, but I guess I’d say I’m with hummingbirds,” we’re encouraged to consider the level of impact she has had on the hummingbird population of Los Angeles. Through the birds and the nests that they occasionally come in with, she sees the world their parents live in. One bird arrives with a nest that’s made up of long strands of hair which comes as a surprise to the co-parent who brings them in, with the realisation that her world has intersected in such a silently supportive way with the avian world that her hair has become an unexpected source of bedding to raise their young. It’s hard not to experience the dawning notion of joy and wonder at the way nature persists in our presence when watching Every Little Thing.
In these moments, we feel Sally lean in with curiosity and consideration, as if what she’s witnessing was more than she ever expected to experience when she set out to document Terry’s story. That feeling is transferred onto the audience, who likely enter Every Little Thing with the notion that it’ll be a charming little nature flick about birds, only to find that it’s far more than that. Under Sally’s direction, Every Little Thing reflects the mindset and caring style of Terry: these are small beings that could flit away into nothingness before our very eyes, and as such, they require a soft, but firm, touch.
With thanks to Caitlin Yeo’s light score which warms the heart like the first rays of sunshine in the morning, waking you up and filling you with the hope and optimism of a day, Every Little Thing becomes a nourishing experience. Caitlin and Sally are regular collaborators, with their shared filmography feeling like they’re engaging in a continuous yarn about the way our world works and are inviting the audience to listen in and to grow alongside them. It’s a creative relationship that exists to strengthen and elevate each other’s voices, and in doing so, they amplify Terry’s story above the status of routine nature documentary.
It may sound silly to say, because of course, that’s what every creative relationship should aim to achieve, but in the trusting hands of Sally and Caitlin, and their cinematography collaborators, we’re gifted an experience that enriches and celebrates the aspects of our world that we either take for granted or simply do not know exists. I watched Every Little Thing at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival alongside Anunpama Srinivasan and Anirban Dutta’s Nocturnes, a story of hawkmoths in the Eastern Himalayas. These moths have a momentary lifespan, blinking into existence for just a few days before leaving this world, yet they have maintained a presence on earth for over 300 million years, a point that accentuates their temporality. As Terry creates a final home for some of her fallen patients, she talks about how in a matter of days they will soon become one with the earth, disintegrating out of existence. She doesn’t mourn their passing, instead honouring the knowledge that they existed in the first place.
As a student of Sally Aitken’s work, I recognise how she presents the lives of her subjects in a way that encourages her audience to treat her films as friends that we can reconnect with as our own life experiences grow over time. Through David Stratton: A Cinematic Life,I’m reminded of the impact of one of Australia’s great critics, and when he is gone, I won’t sit in sorrow for too long, but will instead return to the film to seek comfort in the way he elevated Australian cinema. With Hot Potato, I’m reminded no matter our age in life,we must always keep ourselves open to surprises. I became a Wiggles fan at the age of 39: and while I’m haven’t got all the words to Big Red Car down pat, I at least know that I can return to the Wiggles jovial smiles to help fill in the words I miss. Then of course, there’s the recognition of unexpected friendship in Playing with Sharks, where Valerie Taylor’s anticipation and excitement at getting to see her shark friends who she has grown to known and love over the years one more time enriches our own relationship with nature.
It’s with that in mind that Sally closes Every Little Thing with a moment of freedom as Terry stands in her hummingbird aviary, watching as her now-healed patients fly out the open door and into their world. As these avian-kaleidoscopes momentarily hover in anticipation for what their life of freedom will bring them, we carry the notion of their fleeting impermanence onwards. I can’t help but feel Sally’s hand resting on my shoulder at this moment, encouraging me to consider my own impermanence, and my relationship with nature, and ultimately, how I carry myself in this world.
It’s pointed then that Sally would choose the soothing chorus of Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds to relax itself over the closing credits, as the harmony sings, “this is my message to you: every little thing gonna be all right.” I’ve made a new cinematic friend with Every Little Thing, and I’m richer for it. Like the hummingbird itself – a pollinator – Sally Aiken makes ideas bloom and thrive.
Director: Sally Aitken
Featuring: Terry Masear, Wasabi, Cactus, Jimmy, the Sidney twins, Sugar Baby, Mikhail and Alexa, Raisin, and Larry Bird
Producer: Bettina Dalton
Cinematographers: Nathan Barlow, Dan Freene, Ann Johnson Prum
Score: Caitlin Yeo
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