Emptying the Skies

PHOEBE BENFIELD reviews the revealing documentary Emptying The Skies, which DocHouse will be presenting on November 13th at Rich Mix Cinema

Director: Douglas Kass, Roger Kass (co-director)

Running time: 75 minutes

Release: initially released 2013

“They may be a little crazy, but the situation in the Mediterranean is enough to drive you crazy”.

In 2010, Jonathan Franzan wrote an essay for The New Yorker documenting his experiences of CABS (Committee Against Bird Slaughter), an animal rights group which actively goes about freeing migrating birds which are being trapped in the Mediterranean.

Douglas and Roger Kass have brought this to life with their documentary Emptying the Skies, an explorative piece which looks at not only the sometimes surprisingly dangerous work these people do, but also the difficult moral issues in terms of animal welfare, as well as the question of whether CABS’ immediate actions are the most useful and effective.

The documentary closely follows three members of CABS; Sergio, Piero and Andrea, who travel around Cyprus, Italy and Southern France predominately freeing birds and destroying the various traps which have been created by ‘trappers’. We are told that millions of these songbirds are killed and sold for their meat, a delicacy which is known as ‘polenta e usei’ and can cost between 40 and 80 euros for a plate.

The practice of trapping these birds is a not a pleasant thing to watch. Traps which use nets, stones and bows create long and torturous deaths, with the lime trap, in which the bird is stuck on a branch by its feet after perching, providing some of the most disturbing scenes.

Emptying the Skies

The success of this documentary lays in the openness of the facts. Whilst the scenes of beautiful, yet helpless birds, are incredibly harrowing, the documentary does not stop at their initial plight and therefore does not stay as a solely emotive piece. We see the positives of CABS’ work; the initial successes of freeing some of the birds and the political support they are gaining against the illegal practice. However Emptying the Skies does not shy away from giving the other perspective – we also briefly see the problems surrounding the intensity of some aspects of the group, particularly the perspective of the farmers whose land they trespass, and the ‘trappers’ who see it as their job.

The Kass’ do not try to charm us through wistful shots of the middle distance. They do not try to upset us through long and uncomfortable close ups of the injuries endured by the birds. They merely build on the things Franzan introduced us to in his essay; a problem little is known about, without the patronising undertones some documentaries adopt in order to make us think a certain way.

Emptying the Skies introduces to many a problem which few would be aware of, showing there are many elements to the illegal slaughter of birds which make it an important issue; particularly in terms of the rich high society who pay for the delicacy, and the poorer classes who so desperately use it as a means for money. Although this is something which perhaps is not explored as deeply as it could be (so as to not deter from the issue at hand: killing birds and CABS’ aim to raise awareness of this), Emptying the Skies takes the unlawful practice by humans unto animals, and runs with it, to show that humans really treat one another with as little respect.

To read more on the topic, Jonathan Franzan’s 2010 essay for The New Yorker can be found HERE.

Emptying the Skies will be shown on 13th November at the Rich Mix Cinema, followed by a Skype led Q&A with Director Roger Kass. For more information, see the DocHouse Website.