I've never met filmmaker Alex Karpovsky in person, but from the way his movies are structured, I have to wonder if he's the kind of guy who likes messing with your head. Both his latest film Woodpecker and his 2005 film, The Hole Story, give very credible appearances of being documentaries. And you're sucked into the vibe, even if you know the film is listed in the feature section of SXSW, and then the tiniest bits make you wonder exactly what type of film you're watching anyway, and start questioning what's real and what's staged. I always feel thrown slightly off-balance during these films, but not in a bad way.
Woodpecker is about the excitement raised in Brinkley, Arkansas, when birdwatchers start to report sightings of an ivory-billed woodpecker, a species of bird that was believed to be extinct. Many of the news coverage and interviews with townspeople are genuine -- Karpovsky shot these interviews as though he were doing a documentary about the woodpecker craze. Much of the town is split into the people who are happy about the woodpecker mania, either because they're birdwatchers or environmentalists or because they're making money off the tourists, and the hunters who are upset because their hunting grounds have now become a protected bird sanctuary. Various experts on birds are also divided on whether the sightings have been authentic.
It all sounds very straightforward, blended with some gorgeous footage of the nearby bayou where the woodpecker has allegedly been seen. But then Karpovsky throws actors John Hyrns and Wesley Yang into the mix, who appear in the town as Johnny and Wes. Johnny is a house painter/poet who loves birdwatching and is determined not to leave until he spots the woodpecker himself; Wes is his taciturn sidekick, who just wants a vacation. The fictitious characters mix with the actual townspeople and take the whole movie in a much more surreal direction -- unpredictable yet satisfying.
I feel like I should be telling you that Hyrns is a little too over-the-top to be convincing in a film with a documentary tone, but his intense personality is actually part of the film's charm. I don't like it when documentaries mock their subjects, but it's all right to laugh at Johnny's poems and some of his mishaps, because he's a fictitious character. And in a completely sideways fashion, his character is oddly appealing. You empathize with him even though he tries some mighty bizarre things on his quest to spot an ivory-billed woodpecker. He has the same sheer bloody-mindedness that Karpovsky's filmmaker "character" Alex showed in The Hole Story, but his actions make more logical sense, even if they're not things that you or I might do.
I worry that it's kind of a spoiler to tell you that Woodpecker is not an unadulterated documentary, but that's something you'd probably figure out for yourself beforehand unless you walked into the movie completely cold. Besides, it doesn't matter what know when you start watching this movie -- after 10 minutes, you're going to be questioning and second-guessing. That's part of the ass-backwards, off-kilter enjoyment of Woodpecker.