Admirable but uninteresting, a documentary on saving songbirds.
Emptying the Skies
Based on Jonathan Franzen’s 2010 essay in The New Yorker, Emptying the Skies faces an uphill battle from frame one. The subject of this documentary is one that doesn’t inspire a fevered reaction: migratory songbirds, more specifically the poaching of these songbirds in southern Europe. That isn’t to say Emptying the Skies deals with an irrelevant topic; hunting migratory songbirds is illegal, and the different capturing methods are horrifying in their cruelty. The film is a standard example of an activist work, shining a light on hidden injustices to inspire action. But Emptying the Skies’ noble efforts don’t translate particularly well into a feature-length documentary, meaning people with more of an interest in the content will be sure to get more out of it. In other words, your mileage may vary.
Franzen serves as a quasi-narrator, acting as a surrogate for the audience. The film opens with Franzen talking about how he started taking an interest in birds before delving into his experience reporting on illegal poaching. Director Douglas Kass introduces the organization CABS (Committee Against Bird Slaughter) along with several of its members. CABS is the kind of group that prefers action over protest. They go around Europe to areas known for illegal hunting, locating and destroying traps while trying to save any birds they find captured or injured. Kass focuses mainly on three members of the committee; Andrea, the investigations officer for CABS; Sergio, a successful banker in Italy; and Piero, a vegan living on a commune dedicated to rescuing and liberating animals. They have different backgrounds, but all three unite over the same drive to save birds.
Kass actually tags along with Andrea, Sergio and Piero on their various trips across the continent to migration camps set up by CABS, where volunteers go out and destroy any traps they can find. The footage of CABS members at work help add some much-needed action to the proceedings, and it gives the film an opportunity to show how the hunters’ barbaric traps harm tiny fowls. A bow trap shatters the legs of any bird coming into contact with it, a lime stick is like a glue trap for birds, and a stone trap literally crushes animals with a giant rock. Kass dedicates plenty of time to showing dead or injured birds, although it never feels manipulative. In fact, the most disturbing footage in the entire film actually belongs to a segment from a TV show where Jeremy Clarkson devours a bird drowned in Armagnac (“Being thrown in some Armagnac actually isn’t a bad way to die,” says one chef callously).
The problem is, Emptying the Skies can’t escape how limiting it feels as a theatrical feature. It comes as no surprise that the film bases itself on a news article, since the subject feels better suited to that format (or as a segment on a news magazine program). Kass’s vérité approach helps show off the risk element of what CABS is doing, but the few times they do get caught amount to nothing more than a heated exchange. Kass also turns the camera on Andrea, Sergio and Piero, but aside from Piero’s communal living situation there isn’t much going on. Sergio shows off how much he likes to collect cans, and expresses some worries about becoming a father. Ultimately what Kass captures is a group of kind, relatively normal people doing small but noble actions. It’s nice and admirable, but it’s also not that interesting.