Megan Preston Elliott, November 2019

The Bird Game is Marianna Simnett’s latest film that tells the story of a group of children who are coaxed into playing the deadly Bird Game by a conniving crow, voiced by Joanne Whalley. Crow lures them in with the promise that, if they win the game, they will never have to sleep again. The excited children, or ‘beasts’, quickly become entrapped, acting out whatever Crow cruelly dictates in each phase of the game. It’s a nightmarish fairy tale with a Simon Says twist, in which only the child that is hungry to perform, and willing to go all the way, can win the game.

Marianna Simnett, The Bird Game, 2019 (film still). Courtesy the artist, FVU, the Rothschild Foundation and Frans Hals Museum

I sit in the auditorium at the Regent Street Cinema, anxious for The Bird Game to begin. Waiting in my seat, I notice my body shifting, becoming restless as the crow on the screen watches me with it's clouded eye. It’s not just the crow, I’m sure; I’ve experienced Marianna Simnett’s work before and I distinctly remember the sickness it stirred in my stomach. The audience member that had to rush out of the room for fear of fainting. 

Simnett emerges onto the stage to introduce the film; she’s dressed head-to-toe in black, a crow balancing on top of her head, her hair it’s matted nest. A black veil shrouds her face and feathered wings protrude from her shoulders. The Bird Game, she insists, is “already being played by millions all over the world”, you need only look around to see it. 

When the film begins, I am transfixed to the screen. My whole body participates in this viewing. When it’s over, my left leg is trembling and my toes are burrowing into the soles of my shoes.

Marianna Simnett, The Bird Game, 2019 (film still). Courtesy the artist, FVU, the Rothschild Foundation and Frans Hals Museum

It takes me a while after leaving the cinema to untangle my thoughts; all I can think about is the tightness in my stomach, the pulsing in my chest and the aching in my heart. The film is deeply disturbing, particularly the scenes in which the viewer is left to fill in the gaps from the things left hidden and unseen. The story is completed within the viewer’s own imagination, enabling them to project their own traumas and experiences into the narrative.

Shot on 16mm, the film, at times, has the feel of a home video that captures the playfulness of youth. The special effects, props and prosthetics are just convincing enough to make your stomach turn, but not quite real enough to break the spell. It is on this tightrope between reality and fiction that the viewer is forced to walk throughout the film. 

Marianna Simnett, The Bird Game, 2019 (film still). Courtesy the artist, FVU, the Rothschild Foundation and Frans Hals Museum

The Bird Game expresses the power of fear mixed with desire – it is a concoction of the two with just the right amount of each so that both the subjects in the film and the viewers want to escape but cannot turn away. Throughout the film, Simnett brews a potion of sickness and unease that bubbles and comes to a climactic boiling point in the final scene in which the viewer is confronted with the devastating revelation of how Crow became a bird. How she was so terribly afraid. How a kind witch saved her. How she will now exercise kindness to save the last child standing by transforming her into a bird too.


It is in this moment that Simnett muddles the idea of good versus evil; Crow is at once a villain and a heroine. Reflecting on this scene, I understand that the lingering tightness in my chest is a longing to regain a child-like innocence, and I’m mourning the moments, people and stories that shattered mine. I understand that The Bird Game is a cyclical tale of trauma. Crow plays the part of the witch, subjecting the children to such wickedness to induce a desperation for transformation. The child must understand what it is to feel fear like she did, to be so hungry to be saved, to win the game.

The Bird Game

A Poem in Response to Marianna Simnett’s Film


Crow hunches

In the corner of my bedroom,

Silently observing,



I am oblivious to

The bird’s presence,


That the game is about

To begin.


Crow recoils

And releases

A deafening screech,

A cry for help.

The game has begun.


I feel sadness

For the lonely bird,

Deep within my bones,

Such that I

Dare to dance.


I perform,

Trying on

Different masks,


When Crow

Begins to clap her wings.


Fonder and

More flattered

I become.

The more I am


The more


I become.


There is no

Muscle in my body

That is not aching to

perform for Crow.


To revel in

Her pleasure,

To swell

In the heat

Of her compliments.



Just when

I feel close enough

To reach out

And caress her feathers,


That the two of us

Will become



Lashes forwards

And pecks out my eyes.

Marianna Simnett, The Bird Game, 2019 (film still). Courtesy the artist, FVU, the Rothschild Foundation and Frans Hals Museum

The Bird Game by Marianna Simnett


Co-written by Marianna Simnett & Charlie Fox, shot on 16mm by Robbie Ryan, BSC, music by Oliver Coates, and performed by live birds and children at Waddesdon Manor. 


Produced by Film and Video Umbrella, the film has been commissioned to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the opening in 1869 of the Evelina Children’s Hospital by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild, the builder of Waddesdon Manor. Co-commissioned by the Rothschild Foundation, the Frans Hals Museum and

Film and Video Umbrella.


Film and Video Umbrella



The Rothschild Foundation 

Waddesdon Manor


The Frans Hals Museum


The Bird Game is screening at the ICA in London on Wednesday 13th November 2019

Book tickets here.

© 2020 by Assemblage Magazine.

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