Jonathan Franzen’s 2010 New Yorker article about the illegal trapping of songbirds along the Mediterranean coast does a thorough, sobering job of covering what is a pretty grotesque practice. It describes, in detail, the way poachers ensnare their prey using mist nets and lime sticks, then sell the birds to restaurants where they can be cooked and served as traditional regional delicacies. It also shines a stark light on the dangers encountered by members of CABS (the Committee Against Bird Slaughter) who regularly attempt to free the grounded creatures by any means necessary, and often get attacked—verbally and physically—as a result.
As illuminating as that article may have been, though, Emptying The Skies, a documentary based on Franzen’s story that borrows its headline as its title, ultimately makes a more searing imprint on the psyche. It’s one thing to read about flycatchers and warblers whose tiny legs and diminutively regal wings get stuck in the gummy adhesive of those lime sticks; it’s far more vivid and disturbing to actually see them so inhumanely grounded, their bodies contorted and rendered incapable of flight.
Franzen acts as an executive producer of Emptying The Skies, and also appears in it as a source. But it’s not his film, despite the fact that its opening moments—which focus on The Corrections author discussing the awakening of his ornithological obsession—briefly threaten to turn this into Jonathan Franzen Loves Birds: The Movie. Co-directors and brothers Douglas and Roger Kass use Franzen’s New Yorker research and story as a template, following many of the same CABS characters from his piece, including the particularly determined bird liberator Andrea Rutigliano. But they also expand on the original narrative, looking beyond Cyprus to places like Millau, France, and Brescia, Italy where similar bird-trapping is happening, despite the fact that it violates European Union laws designed to protect the diminishing songbird population.
With cameras in-hand and a 60 Minutes, video-exposé approach, the filmmakers spend a year following the efforts of Rutigliano and his CABS colleagues as they pry injured birds from human-designed prisons, meticulously rejuvenate their charges by placing water droplets into eager beaks, and argue with poachers who have been amassing birds this way for so long that they believe it’s their God-given right to continue doing so. At times, things get intense and the saviors get involved in unsavory business. They trespass on private property, sometimes getting into arguments that turn violent. The bird men tell stories of rescue missions that involve dodging stones and/or bullets, and we see visual evidence of the scars those altercations have inflicted. They also mention that many of those who consume dishes like ambelopoulia—a Cyprus favorite that consists of pickled, boiled, or otherwise cooked songbirds on a plate—have mafia connections. The CABS crew, then, isn’t just a bunch of gentle souls tossing birdies into the sky so they can soar anew. These guy crew are Audubon vigilantes, or a more gentle, environmentally conscious Justice League. Their commitment—particularly in the case of Rutigliano, a man who admits that he became so engrossed in his previous job at an animal-rescue center that he slept in the woods and ate grass with deer—is all-consuming and, frequently, fascinating.
What Emptying the Skies is missing is a sturdier story arc. By focusing on several bird saviors and multiple places where their efforts are needed, the movie, which first debuted on the 2013 film festival circuit, lacks a single, central conflict that will tug the viewer through to the very end. Even at a tight 77 minutes, it sometimes rambles a little. At the same time, it’s to the directors’ credit that they try to show multiple perspectives, including the viewpoint of a Cyprus man who continues to line up birds on lime sticks because the cruel ritual reminds him of the son he lost in a plane crash.
This documentary takes pains to note that, for some, trapping remains a custom filled with deep, emotional resonance. Still, there’s never any question whose side Douglas and Roger Kass are on; they stand firmly with those who believe that if you love something, you absolutely must set it free.