Tuesday, April 21, 2015

EMPTYING THE SKIES: The Kass brothers' doc of Jonathan Franzen's article for The New Yorker

It opens with some glorious shots of birds -- all kinds -- and then Jonathan Franzen speaks. Mr. Franzen, shown below, is the author of one of the great novels of our time The Corrections, but he may be by now better known to cineastes as a bird lover, having appeared in, first, the documen-tary Birders, and now this new one, EMPTYING THE SKIES. Franzen makes a pretty fair narrator, too, popping up now and again to lead us on our journey of discov-ery as to why so many of the world's songbirds are so endangered.

The documentary, in fact, pretty much shows us what Franzen saw and did and learned and whom he met and what they taught him during the time in which, a few years back, he traveled to and around Europe to research the widespread poaching of legally protected birds for an article he was writing for The New Yorker.

If you didn't read that article (and even if you did), and you have any interest in birds as beautiful and fascinating species -- many of which are, like so much else these days, disappearing from our damaged and dwindling natural world -- you'll want to view this lovely, sad, slightly hopeful documentary co-directed by brothers Douglas Kass (at left) and Roger Kass (below).

In it we meet some members of a fine and necessary organization called CABS (Committee Against Bird Slaughter), three of whom -- Andrea,
Sergio and Piero -- make charming and smart guides to what CABS is doing and why. These guys, particu-larly Andrea (below), so love our avian friends that they risk life and limb to free the birds from the horrible traps devised by the poachers who would kill and sell them.

Some of these include the lime sticks, the bow traps, the stone crush traps and even some simple netting that seems to do the trick, especially at nighttime. Seeing the fragile and lovely birds who've fallen prey to all this is more than a bit distressing. Some viewers may find the documentary a kind of horror film for birders.

And yet our CAB boys and their stories more than make up for the pain and suffering on view, so dedicated are they to helping stop the slaughter -- which is partly a by-product of tradition (many of the birds have long provided tasty meals for European gourmets). One section, offering up a chef and his acolytes cooking and then feasting on birds they know to be endangered, is simply obscene

For his part, Piero (above) -- who left the big city to live on a country farm -- is shown feeding his pigs and other animals and cooking up a meal that will make your mouth water. Sergio, who combines a high-end job in finance and with his craving to recycle, proves great fun, as well. Along the way, we travel from Italy to France to Cypress and back. In the latter location, we learn that the same mob men who poach the birds are also involved in drugs, human trafficking and more.

But as Mr; Franzen reminds us, "There is something to be said for a habit of service: You've done a mitzvah." Indeed. And when, in the final scene, we see a number of these "saved" birds released into the wild, your tear ducts are likely to release, as well. From Music Box Films and running a mere 77 minutes, Emptying the Skies opens tomorrow, April 22 (yes, that's Earth Day), in theaters in New York (the Cinema Village) and Chicago (the Music Box) and on various VOD platforms.

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