Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s expose of Orca captivity, Blackfish (2013), enjoyed enormous success, rallying people to its cause. Though pitched on a comparatively tiny scale, Douglas and Roger Kass’ Emptying the Skies (2013), which DocHouse are screening tonight at Rich Mix Cinema, deals with similar subject matter. Based on novelist Jonathan Franzen’s eponymous article of for The New Yorker, the film brings to light the mass killing of migratory birds as they traverse the Mediterranean on their unavoidable annual flightpath. Whilst lacking the polish and punch of its illustrious forbears, Emptying the Skies manages to presents cruelty in black and white, whilst illuminating the grey areas of activism.
Like Louie Psihoyos’ The Cove (2009), Emptying the Skies focuses on a dedicated crew determined to intervene. Both pull no punches in presenting the mass death at the centre of their causes, and peak in tension during pitch-black night operations in which a wrong move might result in tragedy. In this instance, Andrea and the other ground-troops of CABS (Committee Against Bird Slaughter) are sneaking onto the private land of farmers in order to save songbirds that are currently trapped. Alarmingly, millions of birds are illegally poached each year – predominantly in Cyprus – in order to serve highly sought after hors d’oeuvres, most notably Ambelopoulia. British audiences will be unsurprised to see Jeremy Clarkson sampling the delicacy, even as he questions the ethics.
Not only is the killing of these birds outlawed, but when farmers do indulge, there is no sense of making the death quick and painless. The Kass’ camera tracks the multi-national members of CABS as they travel around Europe attempting to tackle the biggest problem areas and what they encounter are various inhumane traps. Particularly abhorrent are limesticks, which see birds lured onto glue-covered branches where, unable to fly, they die slowly in a state of terror and panic. Andrea and Co. do their best to free any birds they find that are still alive, but ultimately, what impact can they really make? This is where the documentary raises its most pertinent points with regard to how much help the work of CABS actually does. Trespassing on land and releasing hundreds of captured birds is a drop in the ocean as they knock heads with – and alienate – the farmer that they should be trying to educate. The millions that are killed cannot be avoided without fundamental change and while Andrea speaks eloquently to the importance of each individual pair of wings he frees, the sledgehammer headline remains.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson