More than 50 men stood at street level with their heads raised and eyes trained on the sky. For a brief moment it was empty, until a flock of pigeons swarmed into sight, falling and twirling in somersaulting free falls.
UCLA alumna Milena Pastreich watched from behind a camera lens, a bystander among the large crowd of men in pigeon shirts gathered in the South Central, Los Angeles backyard.
Beginning in 2011, Pastreich journeyed into the world of Birmingham pigeon rolling, a subculture within Los Angeles, to film her first documentary “Pigeon Kings.” Pastreich began as an outsider to the pigeon enthusiast circle, a lone filmmaker within a tight-knit community of pigeon enthusiasts. Throughout five years of filming everything from 7 a.m. pigeon shows to daily pigeon care, she has become a friend and fellow bird fan to the many men of the pigeon rolling community.
After years of interviewing, filming and editing, Pastreich has now entered into the final week of the film’s Kickstarter campaign, which would go towards finishing the documentary and beginning its film festival run.
While Pastreich was scouting out filming locations for her thesis film project, she noticed pigeons flying in strange patterns above her at a potential home set. After Pastreich asked the homeowner several questions about the erratic bird behavior as she looked at the property, he simply handed her a flyer for a Birmingham Roller pigeon lawn show, and she set off in search of the address.
“I wasn’t quite sure if it was the right house, but as I got closer, I saw that there were just all these guys standing in front wearing pigeon t-shirts,” Pastreich said.
At the lawn shows, Birmingham pigeon owners participate in pigeon beauty pageants and raffles in order to raise money for their pigeon competitions called flies, which lie at the center of the Los Angeles bird culture, Pastreich said. To prepare for the competitions, pigeon enthusiasts devote generations of birds toward perfecting their pigeon teams through special breeding practices.
During a fly, judges gather in the competitor’s backyard and rate his team of pigeons on their ability to fly and dive into simultaneous “rolling” free falls. After the birds fly, the judges caravan to the next location, sometimes visiting up to 12 different homes.
Pastreich said she attended lawn shows and flies all over South Central, filming groups of pigeon enthusiasts appreciating each other’s birds to convey their companionship and shared passion for the pigeons. However, despite her regular attendance, she said she found it hard to gain the pigeon enthusiasts’ trust.
“I’m a total outsider coming into this scene,” Pastreich said. “The most important thing is being able to gain the trust of your subjects when you’re making your documentary.”
When Pastreich first approached pigeon enthusiast Darrian “Choo Choo” Hogg at a lawn show, Hogg said some of the competitors were hesitant to agree to be on camera, afraid Pastreich was working as an undercover cop.
Meryl O’Connor, a UCLA alumna and editor of the film, said Pastreich was eventually able to earn the pigeon enthusiasts’ respect and trust by spending copious amounts of time with her subjects, conveying her passion for filmmaking. She and her subjects bonded over a mutual love for their crafts.
“I think they responded to her dedication because they also share that with their dedication to the birds,” O’Connor said.
Just as Pastreich had to validate her motivations, Hogg had to prove his commitment to pigeons to those who did not believe he would stick with it because of his early inexperience with the pigeons.
“A lot of people thought I was going to quit, but I was like, ‘I’m at the bottom. The only thing I can do now is get better,’” Hogg said. “And eventually you do get better, but it comes with time.”
When filming on location, Pastreich traveled with her film subjects to various parts of LA, some of which Hogg said were dangerous. Her willingness to travel to any location to film them during shows and personal moments, such as visiting family members’ grave sites, impressed the pigeon enthusiasts.
“She went to places that people from the ghetto are scared to go to and taped us,” Hogg said. “She earned a lot of people’s trust.”
Once Pastreich proved herself a filmmaker dedicated to telling the competitors’ pigeons’ stories, she filmed the men for five years as they raised, fed and trained their pigeons in their homes and backyards. But even after gaining initial permission and validation, she still experienced some pushback when she began to ask personal questions.
Keith London, a pigeon enthusiast and the main subject of the film, said he did not mind Pastreich filming his daily caretaking routine with the pigeons since he did not have to perform in any way beyond his daily routine. But he recoiled when she began to ask questions about his children and his now ex-wife. Pastreich wanted to know how his wife and children perceived his passion for pigeons, but it took some convincing for London to speak about his family.
“Sometimes I felt she was getting too personal,” London said. “But we still talked about it and worked it out.”
London said Pastreich immersed herself in the pigeon enthusiasts’ circle. After a while, he and Pastreich began to meet up once a week to grab lunch outside of filming.
Ultimately, the pigeon enthusiasts let Pastreich into their world so that it may be revealed to the general public, who are uneducated about Birmingham roller pigeons and the communities that surround them, Hogg said.
“I just want people to be aware that pigeons are more than rats with wings,” London said.