“Usually, people ask us what 50 Little Birds means, so I’ve kind of already mentally prepared that question.”
Geoff Davis is no stranger to interview questions. As the subject of award-winning documentary short 50 Little Birds, he has reflected on every prompt you could imagine, with the guidance of director Hannah Lindgren and her creative team. It’s no simple task to divulge the intricacies of your life, but Davis does so with grace. Paired with stunning visuals of his art and experiences here in central Indiana, the film handles delicate subject matter, like mental health and abusive relationships, with the poise and honesty so desperately needed in modern conversations about healing from trauma.
And yet, the first question this viewer had as the credits rolled wasn’t what “50 Little Birds” meant. I wanted to know how Davis’ story was discovered, and how both this film and the relationship between Davis and the production team came to be. I was granted the opportunity to have those questions answered on a sunny Thursday afternoon, and the story behind the film goes back years.
Director Lindgren grew up in the greater Indianapolis area, and discovered her passion for video production during her freshman year of high school. “I got put in a video class in high school. I had wanted to do photography, but they didn’t have room, because everyone wanted to do photography,” she explained. It was a rather fortunate change of plans— when Lindgren produced a short project featuring an interview with her grandfather, she was stunned by the emotional responses she received from her family and classmates. She continued to work with nonfiction video throughout high school and pursued documentary filmmaking during her studies at Ball State University. Her career took her to video production positions in Birmingham, Alabama before she returned to Indianapolis in 2018.
Davis also grew up in central Indiana. He lived in Carmel, but his family summered in Maine, a setting and his mother’s interest in folk art allowed him to be immersed in a creative environment. “We got Early American Life Magazine, which I used to look at, flip through the pages and dream, “someday I would love to be in this directory, wouldn’t that be cool,” he disclosed. “And I have been for years now.”
When questioned about what type of art he considers his specialty, Davis chuckled. “That’s a loaded question, because I do everything.” The artist is an avid folk carver— he carves small animals, like fish, whales, and birds, as well as early American pull toys. He teaches classes in letterpress printing at his print shop in Noblesville, and even got a Lilly grant in 2004 to go to Hawaii and learn to carve ukuleles. His diverse portfolio of work is featured in the documentary short and can be found on his Instagram as well- in fact, Instagram was key in connecting Lindgren with the artist’s story.
Lindgren’s mother worked in tourism in Hamilton County and had known Davis for decades before her daughter worked with him on a documentary short back in 2018 on the White River. Lindgren had just returned to Indiana and set up shop in Indianapolis. When the production company she works for, Tilt23 Studios, expressed interest in some internal work, she recalled her prior experiences working with Davis and saw an opportunity to explore his story further through film. She pitched the idea to him and began the journey to “50 Little Birds,” a project that would require that both parties reflect on their personal traumas and mental health journeys. They would leave everything on the table and completely open up to one another in their collaboration on the film.
Lindgren’s plan was to conduct an audio-only interview with Davis and set it behind the footage you enjoy in the film today, everything from Davis’ shop to the subject himself canoeing with his dog. Her boss at Tilt23, Luke Renner, suggested that the interview take a different format. They had Davis sit down and write out his answers. What resulted was roughly twelve pages of candid storytelling. He disclosed his life’s story, discussing his struggles with depression and anxiety, complicated relationship with his verbally abusive mother, and the healing he’s found through therapy and living outside the bounds of others’ expectations. That’s the message at the heart of the documentary— Davis’ journey to cope with his perception of himself versus how others view what he should be.
“I had to call out, “what was my intention and what were other people’s intentions?” I had to get that crap out. That stuff still falls in your lap— like, “I have something today I don’t want to deal with”— but it’s one or two times a week now instead of literally dozens a day,” Davis explained in a discussion of the coping mechanisms he employs. Art is his trade, not his healing device. It’s living with intention and pursuing fulfilling projects, not just what others believe would fulfill you.
“And Davis is one of the most intentional people that I’ve ever met,” Lindgren added.
If you’re still wondering just what “50 Little Birds” refers to, it’s the former name of Geoff’s brand and a reference to his artisanal bird carvings. Lindgren connected with the title immediately. “I’ve always loved that name that Geoff created, and I also just think it’s whimsical. The film’s kind of whimsical, and I think it just fits,” she mused.
The film recently finished its festival cycle, a somewhat unconventional one at that. In the era of COVID, many festivals went virtual or employed other methods, like drive-in settings, to display their participants’ films. “50 Little Birds” played all over the country, from California to New York, and was featured in Toronto, too. The short even won Best of Hoosier Lens at Indy Film Fest this past May. Yet, the team’s favorite spot to see their film featured was one close to home for Lindgren, the Heartland Film Festival at Tibbs Drive-In.
“It was the most idyllic night— it was the perfect temperature, it was gorgeous, and then as soon as the film came on I heard these shouts from all my friends across the parking lot, and it was just perfect,” Lindgren gushed. As the subject of the film, Davis joined the team for Q+As around the country, and particularly enjoyed the mental health-focused discussion at the Awareness Film Festival in Los Angeles. Now, Lindgren, Davis and the rest of the team await the film’s next, more permanent location.
Those interested in seeing the film will be able to find it on Hoodox, Indiana’s new premier documentary streaming service. It will be included with an array of nonfiction video projects and podcasts focused on Indiana and the stories we tell in the Hoosier state. To learn more and subscribe to Hoodox’s platform, you can check out their website here. You can find more information about Lindgren at her website, and check out Davis’ work and sign up for classes with him at his website and Instagram.