Jonathan Franzen writes most convincingly about love when writing about birds. In 2011, his love for them inspired a New Yorker essay that followed a band of activists called the Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS) to trapping sites around the Mediterranean. CABS's mission is to fight south European poachers, who every year illegally slaughter millions of migrant songbirds for food, money and sport. Franzen's essay, "Emptying the Skies," describes in stomach-churning detail the poachers' methods of capture, and now that essay has inspired Douglas and Roger Kass' poignant documentary.
As with the essay, the film takes the side of the activists. It introduces us to Andrea Rutigliano, the head of CABS, built a bit like a bird himself. He and his team sneak onto private property to undo traps and free any birds caught in them. It's during these scenes that the film generates most of its power. Audiences are shown heartbreakingly small songbirds, barely alive, dangling from bow traps, as Rutigliano and company rush to set them free before the poachers return. The camera doesn't flinch when they dress a rescued bird's bloody wound or palpate another's misshapen spine, but we are spared the sight of a mercy killing. (A CABS activist slips into the background to do the deed while Rutigliano, near tears, explains that such killings are common in the field.)
Sometimes the activists are confronted by the poachers, and the grayer areas of activism are revealed: One Cypriot poacher sobs as he explains that trapping birds, a longstanding cultural tradition in southern Europe, evokes memories of deceased loved ones. For others, trapping is a means toward financial stability—a hefty economy is built around ambelopoulia, an outlawed-but-tolerated delicacy of boiled songbird served in some Cypriot restaurants.
Emptying the Skies was directed by Douglas and Roger Kass.
These complexities do little to diminish sympathies for the birds and their rescuers, however. In one tense moment, a gunshot rings in the distance as Rutigliano, kneeling close to the camera, describes in a whisper his past run-ins with the shooter. Here, we are reminded that while the methods of CABS activists are controversial (e.g., the distribution of graphic pictures of mangled, dead birds to the public), they are rooted in life-risking love. The activists welcome the danger—Rutigliano declares that "once a human being is beaten, the world focuses on a violence that has always been there but has been invisible." It's a provocative philosophy, but it seems to be effective. The Cyprus police, we are told, have finally started escorting CABS activists on anti-poaching raids after years of refusing to enforce trapping laws.
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Franzen appears in a series of interview segments throughout the film. In a final appearance, he describes CABS as "performing love" for the birds by bringing awareness to their plight. By this definition, Emptying the Skies performs a grand and aching love by telling its story with a power that enrages.