Film depicting parrot’s cognitive skills to premiere at festival
Irene Pepperberg spent 30 years working with a colleague named Alex, an African Grey parrot who voiced plenty of input for her research.
The film, “Life with Alex,” documents Pepperberg’s extraordinary accomplishments, and is premiering on the East Coast tonight at 7 p.m. as part of the New Jersey Film Festival at Voorhees Hall on the College Avenue campus said Al Nigrin, executive director of the festival.
“What we really like about the film is the compassion and the human element,” Nigrin said. “It shows that an African Grey parrot is a thinking being, who in many ways might be smarter than a lot of humans that I know.”
He said Pepperberg is attending the screening along with the director, Emily Wick.
Wick said Pepperberg will introduce the film, and the two of them plan to respond to questions afterward.
She said the movie shows how much there is to learn about how animals see the world and how we understand animal behavior.
“We have this kind of symbiosis with our pets, but nobody thinks of other creatures as having that same kind of relationship,” Nigrin said.
Wick said journalists have written about Alex, but she wants the film to be more intimate than a news article.
“What I wanted to do with this film was to really take the viewer behind the scenes of the lab with Alex, and give a sense of what it was like to work with him,” she said.
Wick first read about African Grey parrots when she was 14 and said she wanted to teach one how to talk. Much to her dismay, her parents disregarded her aspiration.
“I just forgot about it for many years, but when the opportunity came about to film Alex’s story, it felt like that dream had come true,” she said.
This opportunity arose when Emmy-winning filmmaker Judy Irving saw her first film, “Buried Stories,” Wick said. That same day, Irving got a call from Arlene Levin-Rowe, the producer of “Life with Alex.”
Levin-Rowe had eight hours of footage of Alex in the lab at Brandeis University before the parrot passed away in 2007, Wick said.
She was interested in making a movie about the parrot, and reached out to Irving for help who offered Wick the opportunity.
Wick said she worked on the film from 2008 to 2009.
“I knew there would be a lot of challenges, particularly because there wasn’t a lot of footage available,” she said.
The film is made up of interviews, archived materials like newspaper headlines, animation, lab notes and footage of Alex in action.
“His accomplishments with Dr. Pepperberg were very far-reaching and detailed,” Wick said. “What we hope to do with this movie is get people more interested in learning about what Alex did.”
Pepperberg worked with Alex at Purdue University, Northwestern University, the University of Arizona, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab and Brandeis University.
She is currently working with bird subjects at Harvard University.
A small group of students interacted with Alex for eight to 10 hours a day in the way one would interact with a toddler, she said.
“He had formal training sessions, but we also simply talked to him, identifying what he was eating, the objects with which he was playing, and, later on, answering his questions as to the labels of novel objects (and) colors,” Pepperberg said.
She said his communication abilities matched that of a two-year-old and his cognitive capacities were that of a first-grader, proving animals have greater abilities than are presently understood.
“The main point is to realize that a creature that is so very different from a human — whose lineage separated from that of humans 280 million years ago, whose brain is the size of a shelled walnut — has very similar cognitive abilities … to those of humans,” Pepperberg said.
For those interested in the specific science behind the film, there are many journal articles, particularly in the Journal of Comparative Psychology and Animal Cognition, she said.