'Emptying the Skies': Film Review

Courtesy of Music Box Films
A niche-oriented eco-doc with birder appeal

Renegade amateurs wage war on bird poachers in the Mediterranean

It may surprise American readers to learn that, in some places, eating tiny songbirds is considered a treat. As a result, poaching is one more on a list of many threats to the millions of songbirds who migrate through Mediterranean "pinch points" each year. Seeing a danger they can combat more effectively than they can climate change or vanishing habitat, a group of animal lovers dubbed CABS (Committee Against Bird Slaughter) mounts raids in which they rescue captured birds and destroy the traps laid for them. Following them for a year in his first feature, Douglas Kass offers a doc full of upsetting images and activist dedication; it is unlikely to be anywhere near as celebrated as The Cove, but it will be appreciated on video by those who share its appreciation for the world's varied avian population.

Inspired by a Jonathan Franzen New Yorker article, the film begins with Franzen explaining how "the scales fell from my eyes" upon realizing the variety of birds he shares the planet with. Franzen pops up from time to time, being interviewed in a park, but all the action happens with CABS, likeable if reckless guys who care passionately about their mission. We go on raids in Cyprus, France, and Italy, finding a different sort of age-old and cruel means of poaching in each spot: bow traps break birds' legs in snares; lime sticks are covered in sticky goop that immobilizes them; stone crush traps do just what you think. We see more than enough images of the victims, and cheer CABS on as they free those that are still capable of flight. (In addition to scenes of trapped birds, we're treated to shots of them being cooked and served up with the heads still on.)

Agitational cruelty footage aside, the film's highlights are confrontations between CABS and the owners of land they creep onto. Many of these people, who are breaking laws protecting the birds, claim to be ordinary folks with a right to eat as their forebears did; others are frightening businessmen willing to give our heroes a beating. Since the filming, CABS has convinced police in Cyprus to escort them on raids, but we're left with the impression that, so long as the mass of people see nothing wrong with eating endangered birds, enforcement alone is never going to work.

Director: Douglas Kass

Producer: Roger Kass

Executive producers: Jonathan Franzen, Andrea van Beuren

Director of photography: Douglas Kass, Michael Tucker

Editor: Michael Levine

Music: Marty Beller


No rating, 77 minutes