“Emptying the Skies,” the fifth and final screening of the Awareness Film Series, tells the story of the poaching of songbirds in southern Europe as they follow their migratory patterns. The director, Douglas Kass ’96, joined the audience after the showing to discuss the filmmaking process.
“Emptying the Skies” is a documentary based on an essay written in The New Yorker by Jonathan Franzen. It follows the story of the illegal poaching of songbirds in southern Europe and those who protest these criminal actions. After their capture, the songbirds are sold on the black market to be eaten. Although it is against the law, many people continue this prohibited trapping because there is a lot of money to be made from it.
In Cyprus, the dead birds are turned into ambelopoulia, which is widely appreciated as a local delicacy. This poaching has led to an extreme population decline, and many species even face extinction if the trapping continues. The songbirds are following necessary migration patterns and are being killed in brutal and sadistic ways because of these biological necessities.
The documentary shadows a group of activists as they travel through Italy, France, and Cyprus and risk their lives to free songbirds. The animal rights advocates hike through the woods in the dark, whispering into the camera. They know how much danger they are putting themselves in, but they believe too strongly in their cause to stop.
“There were people who wanted it to be more of a pro and con political film, but we found that what was most compelling was to follow these guys who really walk the walk and talk the talk,” Kass said following the screening. “They really believe in this and they put themselves on the line on a very regular basis, even more than we captured here…. They get attacked on a regular basis, but they really believe in what they’re doing. Their dedication was inspiring.”
As the activists journey through Europe, they free birds from many different types of traps. There is the lime stick, which is a sticky surface whereon birds land and get stuck. They die slowly and painfully as they hang, defeated and unable to escape. There is the bow trap, which is a type of snare. In the bow trap, the bird’s bones are broken and they hang upside down with broken legs until they are retrieved. There is also the stone crush trap, where a rock is precariously held up with a grouping of sticks. Once a bird brushes against the sticks, they fall, flattening the bird like a piece of paper in the process.
In one scene, the activists try to save a bird from a stone crush trap, but there appears to be a problem with its spine. There is nothing they can do for the bird. Although many birds are lost, each one that is saved makes a profound impact on the activists.
“To give back the life to someone who was condemned to death [is] more than joy, it’s like everything makes sense now,” said Andrea Rutigliano, one of the bird-loving activists in the documentary. “You free yourself at the same time.”
“Emptying the Skies” ended with a montage of Rutigliano and the other activists setting birds free to continue their migration. The birds fly out of their cages, desperate to escape back to the lives they were living before they were captured. Although being an activist for songbirds in Europe is not easy, this act of emancipation allows them to directly see the outcomes of their actions.
Although the poaching of songbirds is a problem demonstrated by the film, Serene Murad ’18 addresses the speciesism that is rampant in the outrage over the issue.
“I thought the documentary was really good, but I think it’s interesting how we differentiate animal type depending on how cute we perceive it to be,” Murad said. “What was happening with the birds could be applied to any other animal, but we view birds as symbolic creatures who have freedom and flight so we care more about people killing them for food. But cows we kill all the time for food, and the same with chickens. For some reason, some animals are okay to kill and some animals aren’t, even though at the end of the day, they’re all being used for food.”
Kass shared his opinion on the topic as he answered questions after the screening, sharing one thing that he wanted to accomplish with this documentary.
“That’s the hope with documentaries like this: to make people conscious and active in their own lives,” Kass said.