“Million Dollar Pigeons,” which had its world premiere this week at Hot Docs, follows a colorful cast of pigeon masters from far and wide who compete in the most lucrative pigeon races on the planet. Variety has been given exclusive access to the trailer, and speaks to the director, Irish filmmaker Gavin Fitzgerald.
The third documentary feature from Fitzgerald, the film enters the world of the passionate “pigeon fanciers” who put their reputations and livelihoods at stake in pursuit of ever-growing prize purses. “Million Dollar Pigeons” is produced by Samantha Corr for Venom Films, in association with Raidió Teilifís Éireann (RTÉ) and the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, in co-production with ZDF/ARTE and NHK. Dogwoof is handling world sales.
Born and raised in Dublin, Fitzgerald is the director of “Conor McGregor: Notorious” (2017), which followed the controversial Irish UFC fighter and was the highest grossing Irish documentary of all time, and “As It Was” (2019), about the former Oasis frontman Liam Gallagher’s musical journey after the British band’s high-profile break-up.
While the subjects of his latest feature don’t spend quite as much time in the limelight, Fitzgerald’s journey into the surprisingly cutthroat, high-stakes world of competitive pigeon racing reveals how an influx of cash in recent years has transformed the sport.
“All this money brought a divide in the world,” the director told Variety. “You’ve got people that feel that the sale of million-dollar pigeons is absolutely necessary for the sport to grow. But there’s a lot of people that feel that that’s not what true pigeon racing is about.”
In 2019, a bird dubbed the “Lionel Messi of pigeon racing” sold for a then-record €1.25 million ($1.3 million); a year later, that was topped at an auction in China, where a Belgian-bred champion fetched €1.6 million ($1.7 million) from a local enthusiast. Many long-time hobbyists, said Fitzgerald, “feel priced out by all this crazy money.”
“Pigeon racing is meant to be a kind of poor man’s horse racing, something that anybody can do. [The money] brings this divide in the sport,” he added. “But I think the one thing they can all agree on is they all want it to grow. I hope the film will help that in some way.”
So as a director, you go from making documentaries about Conor McGregor and Liam Gallagher to following the world of competitive pigeon racing. Help us make sense of that.
I suppose I could see a trend happening and the type of films I was making with certain characters. I just wanted to do something different and dip into a quirky world that just really fascinated me from the offset. My father introduced me to the first pigeon fancier. I talked to him, and he was a very interesting guy. I talked to the next person, and before you know it, I was sucked into their world. I just felt that it had all the elements of something that was entertaining and fascinating and dramatic at the same time. I want to make films that get me excited. And I’m always trying to do something different.
You were new to this world going in, but you soon discover that this is a sport that attracts everything from working-class hobbyists to multimillionaires. Did that surprise you?
I think there’s an association with pigeon racing, especially in Ireland and the U.K., that it’s this cottage industry and it’s an old man’s sport, but that image is changing. And money is the one factor that’s changing everything. When I started to dip my toes into the world, the most expensive pigeon in the world was about 300 grand. And by the time I finished making the film, it had risen up to 2 million. So there’s definitely an inflation in prices, and a lot of it comes from China. There’s a lot of wealthy people out there that keep pigeons, and that affects the rest of the world. So it just seemed like a really exciting time to make a film about this sport, which is rapidly changing.
The film takes place on four continents and has a very global dimension. Was that also something that you were expecting going in? Did you know it was going to become this big multinational production?
I started off just filming pigeon fanciers in Ireland. But when I heard about a race in South Africa called the Million Dollar Pigeon Race, my ears prickled. I just needed to find out more about this international competition concept and these big money races that bring the international community together. So I thought that just makes it a much more internationally appealing film, to have the best pigeon fanciers from across the world. And they’re all so excited about these races. It’s like winning the Olympics for them. But then making the film, things started to change. We were in the midst of the pandemic. The narrative just kept evolving.
Right. Because you travel to South Africa to follow the Million Dollar Pigeon Race – the longest-running event of its kind – and, without giving anything away, something happens there that shakes the global racing community to its core. How much did that impact the film? I’m sure you weren’t expecting it.
The initial concept was to follow solely that race. But the first year we went [to South Africa] was the last after running for 25 years. Documentary is all about timing. It was difficult because we had to pivot the narrative, but I always welcome surprises. It obviously made it difficult because we’re shooting in various countries in a pandemic. The exciting thing in the pigeon racing industry is you’ve got a lot of competition. So [the Million Dollar Pigeon Race] may have ruled the roost for many years, but now everybody wants a piece of the action. There’s international money races across the world. We ended up focusing on a really new and exciting one in Thailand as well, which gave you a completely different side of the pigeon sport and shows just how truly international it is.
These ‘pigeon fanciers’ are competing for prize money and bragging rights, but the ones we meet, from very different backgrounds, also share a love for these birds. Can you talk a little bit about these characters you met, and what you think draws them to this sport?
They say you need to have a feather in your brain; it’s something that you’re born with. And a lot of them, they would have been introduced to pigeons from their father or their grandfather. In the old days, everybody used to do it. But now there’s just so many distractions, so trying to get young people involved in the sport is a challenge. Nobody has the time to spend their whole day in the garden with the pigeons. But those who do, they just have this addiction to it and a love for it. And I think the passion just comes from trying to breed what they think is the perfect bird. It takes many, many years to come up with that recipe and knowledge, and it’s just never ending. It’s something that you can only learn by doing. And they really earn their stripes. They’ll die in their lofts. They’ll work on their pigeons until they cannot walk out to them anymore. They just have a true love for their birds and for what they do.
You appeared to be on this very specific career track as a filmmaker, working with McGregor and Gallagher, and then you moved in a very different direction. Do you see some sort of unity in these films? Is there something that you feel that you bring to each one, even though the subjects are so different?
I think I’m just fascinated by characters and people who are passionate about what they do. The kinds of sports that I follow, they tend to be a little more niche. Something on the outskirts. So I think that’s maybe what gels [the films] together. I just get sucked into worlds, and I love exploring them when I’m in there. I’m still figuring it out, what the connection is from one film to the next. As I think Steve Jobs said, you can only connect the dots looking back.