PARK CITY, Ut. | (Film critic Eric Althoff is in Park City covering Sundance 2020 for Screen Comment) Matt Yoka found a rather unusual Los Angeles treasure trove in an unassuming storage unit. There, in multiple boxes, sat some 3,200 ¾ inch Betamax tapes of helicopter news footage, all of it captured in the nineties by a now-defunct aerial news firm called Los Angeles News Service.
Yoka, an L.A. native, had been looking for a unique story to tell about his hometown. These tapes provided the creative mine he had been seeking.
“It occurred to me that helicopter reporting was this unique very L.A. phenomenon. That became the sort of broad genre I wanted to explore,” Yoka told me. “Then I wanted to find a character that exemplified that.”
Yoka found his unlikely heroes in the husband-and-wife team of Bob Tur and Marika Gerrard, who shot all of that footage in the skies above the City of Angels. They were there during the 1992 riots. They hunted down O.J. Simpson during that infamous Bronco chase, with their aerial footage broadcast the world over as the former football star led police on a low-speed highway pursuit.
Yoka has distilled some 2,000 hours of raw footage and combined it with contemporary interviews with Tur and Gerrard, now divorced and living a quiet life far from the noise of those chopper blades. Yoka’s film, “Whirlybird,” debuted this weekend at Sundance, where Yoka and his two subjects, long since divorced, are talking about not only the couple’s rather unique journey (more on this later) but also the role of the media both then, and now.
“I felt like even if the movie didn’t live up to what I was hoping to accomplish, at least I was preserving a piece of L.A. history,” said Yoka, who worked on his film over the course of six years. “That helped me at least get through a bit of the challenging process.”
The early-nineties were a bonanza for the kind of sensationalized stories that Tur and Gerrard chased from the sky. In addition to the ‘92 riots and O.J., there was Amy Fisher, Tanya Harding and Waco. And that’s just in the first four years of that decade.
“The way that I look at the O.J. pursuit and what that means to our society, I really see it through the lens of media,” Yoka said. “What that says to me is [that] news can be entertainment. It [was] a disturbing moment in media history, [but] I don’t think, frankly, it’s gotten much better.”
In a true-life story that is already strange from the get-go, “Whirlybird” throws us a curveball early on when Tur sits down for an interview with Yoka: Bob Tur is now “Zoey.” Yoka treats this information as straightforward, and he avoids making psychological spelunks into Tur’s mental state.
“I really do think she is trying to explore her past [and] reflect on who she is,” Yoka said of Tur. “Although she comes off as a very complex person, I hope that people see how brave she is to explore herself like that. I don’t think enough people do that in their [own] life.”
But who Tur was when she was still Bob wasn’t necessarily pleasant for Gerrard, Tur’s then-wife. Tur, piloting the chopper, often screams at Gerrard in profanity-laced screeds about framing a shot or zooming in. We are left to wonder if this working relationship—which could be labeled toxic by even the most conservative standard—led to their eventual divorce far more so than Tur’s struggling with her underlying gender identity.
“I think there are a lot of reasons why we are who we are, and it’s hard to boil down into a single explanation,” Yoka said, adding that he hopes “Whirlybird” “facilitates conversation” about far more than just gender issues.
“Life is messy and complicated, and along the way you make mistakes, you fall in love, you build things, you break things,” he said. “And [Tur and Gerrard] did it at such an intense level that I think it makes for a very engaging story.”
Yoka believes Tur and Gerrard opened up to him so much due to a desire to look back and reflect on their shared past. Also interviewed in the film are the couple’s adult children, including daughter Katy, who now works at MSNBC.
The other star of the film is Los Angeles, seen from a vantage point enjoyed by rather few, beyond news copter pilots.
“I initially thought of Zoey as almost a tour guide of Los Angeles, and it was only in digitizing the archives that I realized I could tell the story of [their] relationship,” Yoka said. “As a result something much more relatable and human about their experience in their totally extraordinary story” came through during the filmmaking process, he said.
Yoka said he doesn’t feel that “Whirlybird” is an ‘indictment of all news media. Rather, he says he is impressed with the caliber of contemporary reporting and hopeful for its continued hallowed place in the American firmament.
“Journalism today gets a very bad rap…clumped in with ‘news entertainment,’” he said. “And I really believe in a lot of the work that’s being done is vital. It’s never been more important.
“I think the pitfalls and risks of what journalism can be are alluded to in ‘Whirlybird,’” Yoka said. “And I also think Zoey and Marika would be the first to talk about and reflect on this. They were pioneers, and a lot of good came out of it—but there’s been a lot of consequences as well.”
“Whirlybird” screens Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday at Sundance.
Eric Althoff is in Park City covering Sundance for Screen Comment (programs and screening times here)