AFI Fest 2020: ‘Whirlybird’ Recalls LA’s Memorable Moments Through a Deeply Personal Story

User Rating: 7
Whirlybird still

A still from WHIRLYBIRD by Matt Yoka | photo by Los Angeles News Service.

The sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles comes alive in new ways in Matt Yoka’s poignant and reflective documentary, Whirlybird.

Zoey Tur and Marika Gerrard reminisce and examine their life together, running the Los Angeles New Service. At the time, Zoey had not yet understood or embraced her identity and was known to the world as Bob. Throughout the 80s and 90s, Tur and Gerrard helped usher in a new era of breaking news, live on the scene broadcasts, and breathtaking overhead footage of everything from police pursuits to the 1992 LA Riots. In Whirlybird, they recall the stress and toxicity that plagued their marriage, which was further complicated by Zoey’s internal battles.

With the wealth of the Los Angeles News Service archives and family home movies at their fingertips, Yoka and writer Andrea James and editor Brian Palma construct an engaging story that embraces the swirling and unpredictable emotions of its central figure. The early days play out like a collection of scenes from Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler, as Marika picked up the camera and followed Bob into one harrowing event after another, Bob screaming at her to “get the shot” while uttering an endless refrain of verbal abuse.

Zoey and Marika recount stories of rescuing accident victims before ambulances arrived, aiding in search and rescue operations, and watching the city they loved crumble beneath them. They talk about having scanners and radios always on, sacrificing vacations and holidays to get the story. When children came — first, a daughter named Katy and then a son named James — they tossed them in the van and brought them along. At least until they upgraded to a helicopter.

Image from Matt Yoka’s Whirlybird | photo by Los Angeles News Service.

The assemblage of footage is truly remarkable and unfolds like a set of moving yearbooks, showing the highs and lows of LA’s biggest stories, bringing new context to OJ Simpson’s “slow-speed chase” and the 1992 beating of Reginald Denny at the start of the riots. As we move from one incident to the next, Zoey and Marika share the things they’d thought about at the time, along with how their thinking has evolved with time, distance, and simply growing up.

It’s interesting to watch Zoey speak about Bob as an external being. She does reflect on the attitudes and behaviors of her former self and never tries to claim, “That wasn’t me!” But listening to her speak about the past, it’s clear that it wasn’t her, at least in some ways. It truly was someone she didn’t fully know or understand. The years since she transitioned have clearly been full of healing, growth, and distance.

And this may be where Whirlybird feels a little bit incomplete. The footage and the interviews are fascinating, but they are laid out in a straight line from beginning to end. There isn’t much room to explore more of the struggles that Zoey faced while she was still known as Bob. And there is minimal discussion of how Zoey’s transition affected Marika or their two grown children. The result is a film that feels like a feature-length documentary about LA’s helicopter reporters’ history combined with a short doc about a local celebrity coming out as trans. It falls short of being a complete story. In that regard, it is a bit of a missed opportunity. But this is a great story and a compelling documentary that deserves to be seen.

Whirlybird is worth watching. Matt Yoka has an eye for a good subject and knows how to tell it well. This is his first, but certainly won’t be his last opportunity to tell such deeply human stories.

Whirlybird does not yet have an official release date.

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