Credit: BBC/Los Angeles News Service
Before We Vanish by Nicholas Yap Film

Whirlybird | Matt Yoka

August 26, 2021

Whirlybird ultimately disappoints with its own kind of bland journalism.

Charting the professional milestones and personal travails of Zoey Tur and Marika Gerrard, the dynamic partners noted for their contributions to L.A. live reportage (most prominently coverage of O.J. Simpson’s trial and high-speed freeway chase), Matt Yoka’s Whirlybird secures to its stringer’s paradise the earthly anchor of empire in freefall. For much of its runtime, the film proceeds not along the typical axis of retrodiction favored by similarly end-motivated, “rise-and-fall” documentaries, but instead follows its subjective path along the experiential crests preventive of both reflection and forethought. This proves at least somewhat crucial to leveraging the immediate, immersive appeals of the duo’s labors to create an engaging tenor, but soon proves uninterested in any reflective input from their present-day avatars.

Zoey’s induction into her role is fraught with complication, facing serious impediment by way of financial anxiety and limited access to newsworthy scenes. Even after saving up adequately to request credit for a news helicopter, the emotional toll of her frequent proximity to death and violence manifests silently, culminating in a mid-interview breakdown while discussing her coverage of the Aeroméxico Flight 498 crash. Such responses are few and far between, however; her familiarity with the job corresponds to a stunning apathy towards the human crises documented by her partner — a particularly chilling segment, filmed during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, depicts the beating of Reginald Denny in graphic detail, set to Zoey’s commentary as she beseeches rescuers from the safety of a helicopter before offering despondently, “It’s important to see the dark side of the city”. Her carceral instincts in response to the incident, offering eyewitness testimony against the L.A. Four, situate the bourgeois passivity of the preceding footage (predictably) within the ranks of liberal moralism and justice-seeking, but Yoka’s placidly observational eye hardly deigns to provide a motivational or psychological foil for this supposition, or to adopt any critical stance in accordance with the logical trajectory of intent evinced by his chosen material.

Though an oversight like this one doesn’t register distastefully in the moment, it’s a questionable omission of context when accounting for the film’s structural organization as a cautionary tale and evident lack of endorsement for anyone featured; proffering space for the occasional first-person recount of its archival sequences but curiously shying away from asserting too conspicuously their more troubling implications. It’s not even that they’re comparatively unimportant in the mass of assemblage presented: save for the above-mentioned O.J.  broadcasts, Whirlybird remains largely composed of filler footage overlaid with the off-screen couple’s musings about their disintegrating relationship and stressful working conditions. The choice of visual accompaniment hinges almost entirely on generating momentum, and the recreation of a detailed synchrony, in its overplotted spectrum of disarray (or rather, the optical impression of disarray rather than undertaking investigation into its incrementally tilled and tiered components), winnows down any opportunity to trace recorded history’s continuity into the here and now, failing to do justice to the innate complexity of Zoey and Marika’s perspectives, especially with the latter being unfairly sidelined. Threads concerning Zoey’s abusive familial past, unfulfilling childhood, and her gender dysphoria pre-reassignment, too, inch their way into conversation, and leave briskly with all the significance of biographical footnotes or pop trivia. While the seeming reticence to discuss them closely could well be a valid personal choice owing to the sensitivity of their content, Yoka’s decision to devote a heartbreaking confessional bookending the film intimates an open and forthcoming attitude rarely seen here, as well as the possibility of a more authentic dialogue emerging from a more subject-oriented/mediated approach. Instead, Whirlybird disappoints with its bland journalism, ironically, making for an event-heavy, informational pamphlet and little else.

Published as part of Before We Vanish | August 2021.