Pigeons, particularly those of New York City, have been deemed “rats with wings” and other derogatory descriptors despite their docile nature and historical reliance on human stewardship. The species has been regarded as a nuisance for integrating with modern manmade landscapes, and only a few sympathetic souls continue to care for and breed flocks these days. But a new film set to premiere on November 2 at the Urbanworld Film Festival in Manhattan sheds light on the city’s elusive pigeon-rearing subculture that has been pushed to the outer boroughs as gentrification and cost of living skyrocket.

“Homing” (2023), a short film written and produced by Munir Atalla and directed by Ricardo Varona, tells the story of an emotionally volatile pigeon rearer named Juan who spends most of his time feeding, watering, cleaning up after, and training a flock of hundreds of pigeons on the rooftop of his building in Brooklyn. Equal parts documentary and fiction, it takes viewers from hundreds of feet into the air back to ground level through a variety of seemingly covert spaces uniquely outfitted for the increasingly rare hobby. “Homing” was awarded Best Student Film at last week’s New Hampshire Film Festival.

In an interview with Hyperallergic, Atalla shared that his interest in pigeon-rearing spawned in 2016 when he came across a flock of birds swooping and soaring in formation across the Brooklyn skies.

“I sought this community out myself,” he said. “I recognized that pigeon keeping was a practice that I was familiar with from growing up in the Middle East, from growing up in Jordan, and I immediately wanted to understand who was behind these flocks in Brooklyn.”

Roxana Contreras portrays Fabi, Juan’s estranged and artistically inclined daughter.

Atalla began spending time with and befriending the pigeon keepers with the desire to film a documentary about them, but the project pivoted toward a narrative short after he enrolled in an MFA program at Columbia University and met Varona during a screenwriting class. The pair spent time on rooftops and hidden pigeon auctions to craft the fictionalized story of Juan and Fabi, his estranged daughter, around the real-life experiences of the people engaged in the pigeon-rearing community.

Atalla and Varona enlisted renowned Bushwick pigeon keeper David Malone as an executive producer for the film, who took them “under his wing” and helped unlock a series of vital connections to facilitate production.

“Most of the pigeon keepers are ‘Old’ New Yorkers,” Atalla said. “They’re of a different generation than kind of this gentrifying class of Brooklyn. These guys have like dedicated their lives to pigeon keeping — sometimes comes at the cost of their personal relationships.”

At one point during the film, Juan brings Fabi to a semi-secret pigeon auction to sell a bird from another man’s flock that ended up on his rooftop. This is where the short veers into documentary territory, as the set was an actual auction that took place on Long Island, and the actor portraying Juan actually sold the bird during filming.

“We really wanted to shoot something that felt authentic, so we, we came up with auctioning off this bird live and not telling anyone except the auctioneer,” Varona recounted. “We weren’t sure if we were going to get any bids, but there was a little bit of a real bidding war which is hilarious.”

The intentionally incomplete storytelling of the film yields more questions than answers about Juan’s role as a father, leaning into a “slice of life” narrative style that touches on human displacement juxtaposed with the homing instinct of a pigeon. Atalla and Varona left the door open for further endeavors with the pigeon-keeping community down the line.

“We really want part of this film’s legacy to be to draw attention to the fact that this is a time-honored tradition that’s part of New York City’s cultural fabric,” Varona added, highlighting that he and Atalla have invited many of the pigeon keepers who helped inform the production to the Urbanworld premiere to see the hobby being celebrated outside of the rooftops at last.

“Homing” will screen at Urbanworld on Tuesday, November 2, at 5:15pm in AMC Theater on 34th Street.

Rhea Nayyar (she/her) is a New York-based teaching artist who is passionate about elevating minority perspectives within the academic and editorial spheres of the art world. Rhea received her BFA in Visual...

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