Filmmaker Cheryl Allison didn't let the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic keep her from making a new friend -- and forging a relationship that changed both their lives. No spoilers, but have some Kleenex handy.
In March 2020, Allison and her wife, Natalie Murray, were on lockdown in Dallas. Unable to see any other friends or family, Allison began taking walks around Turtle Creek Park in their neighborhood. There she met a feathered being who's now the subject of her documentary Honk: A Goose, a Girl, and a Fairy Tale Ending.
"Here he came, honking into my life," says Allison, who has seen Honk the goose and Honk the film soar to international fame. The film has been in 36 festivals and won more than 10 awards in them, and it's now available on major streaming services, giving it the most exposure of any of her works.
She and Honk formed a connection almost immediately, she says. "That took me by complete surprise," she says. "I was very taken aback when he started following me and acting like he knew me. I couldn't believe the emotion that he showed." She had no idea that waterfowl and other birds did that, she notes.
She began going to the park daily to see Honk, and in talking to animal experts, she learned that he was a domestic goose. That meant he was unable to fly and that, like many ducks and geese, he had probably been dumped in the park by someone who once kept him as a pet. Baby ducks and geese are often given as gifts -- a bad idea, the film points out -- and when they mature and are too big to manage, they end up abandoned in the wild, an unsuitable environment where they face predators and other hazards. She also learned that he was a social animal and probably had a mate somewhere in the park. It then turned out that his mate was dead and Honk was in mourning.
Honk became Allison's best friend, and she decided to post photos and videos of their interactions on social media, a way to connect with loved ones she couldn't see in person. A Dallas news anchor saw the posts and decided to do a story. "That was the spark that started to make him go viral," Allison says. Then The Dodo, a producer of animal videos, filmed one about Honk. "That's what took him worldwide," she says.
Even before Honk gained thousands of social media followers, Allison was thinking of making a film about him, perhaps an educational short about the problem of dumping ducks and geese. But as his fame grew, so did the project, becoming a feature-length documentary that has resonated with audiences everywhere.
Allison's previous documentaries include Pieces of Us,about anti-LGBTQ+ bigotry and hate crimes, and Shatter the Silence, dealing with sexual violence, rape culture, and the ongoing struggle for gender equality. "My documentaries, I always want to spark conversation," she says. "This still fits with my mission because it's animal rights."
The film follows Allison and Honk from their days in the park through her decision to take him to a rescue center near Dallas, the Rogers Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, once she was convinced it was a good fit. He made new friends and found a new mate there, and Allison was able to visit him -- and as the film demonstrates, their connection was as strong as ever, showing a goose can bond with a person just as a dog or cat can.
Honk also helped people bond with each other through seeing him on social media or in the film, Allison says. "Obviously, the world was in a very divisive time," she says. But the goose "brought out the love and humanity in people -- they all united in love for Honk," she explains. "That to me was a really beautiful thing. He really helped people find that joy and that love and that camaraderie with each other." Honk's fame has also led to many donations to Rogers Wildlife Rehabilitation. "It's a real pay it forward," Allison says. And there are now children's books about Honk.
While in keeping with Allison's filmmaking mission, Honk was a departure for her in some ways. Although she's acted in scripted films, it marks the first time she's appeared in one of her documentaries. And since she couldn't hire a film crew during the pandemic, she relied on Murray to be her cinematographer. "She did a great job," Allison says of her wife. Murray was a producer on the film as well, as was Alison Smith, who Cheryl Allison calls a "powerhouse lesbian" music executive.
"It took some lesbian women to get this goose's story worldwide," Allison says. "He knew who to come to."
And worldwide it is. As of this month, Honk is available on Amazon, iTunes, Vimeo, Google Play, and other streaming services, plus it can be viewed on demand from cable operators including Dish, DirecTV, and Verizon FIOS, and it's on DVD too. It's out so far in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., and distributor Vision Films is negotiating deals in other countries.
"This little goose's story is flying around the world," Allison says.