Based on an article in The New Yorker by best-selling writer Jonathan Franzen, Emptying the Skies chronicles the poaching of migratory birds in southern Europe and introduces us to the intrepid volunteer squad of bird-lovers trying to stop it. Trapped at “pinch points” near the Mediterranean, these globetrotting songbirds are considered culinary delicacies and reap big bucks on the black market, yet many species are endangered and some face extinction. Director Douglas Kass and co-director Roger Kass skillfully translate the spirit of Franzen’s words onto the screen and deservedly win this year’s Zelda Penzel Giving Voice to the Voiceless Award.
Please describe your film in your own words.
Roger Kass: Emptying the Skies was filmed over the course of nearly a year, as our tiny two-person film crew embedded with a group of bird protectors from all over Europe and traveled with them through France, Cyprus and Italy during critical migration periods. This was like covering a war, and we were constantly in danger of attack by the volatile and violent poachers confronted by our subjects as they went about day and night destroying illegal trapping installations and freeing all the birds they could.
We also paid visits to Rome and Milan, Italy, and Bonn, Germany, to capture our main subjects living their everyday lives back home. This included several days and nights in the raw but wondrous Valle Vegan, our subject Piero’s idyllic animal refuge outside Rome, and a stop at the private banking offices where another subject, Sergio, manages the wealth of high net worth families. We also journeyed to a fantastic medieval castle on the German-Swiss border to interview the world-renowned migration specialist Professor Dr. Peter Berthold for his insights on our story, and we went birding in Central Park with Jonathan Franzen as we delved into how he became so passionate about covering the topic.
Douglas Kass: On the surface it’s about the need for traditions to change in the face of the realities we’ve created on this planet. When a tradition moves a species to the verge of extinction, it needs to be reconsidered. But the film moves on from that, I think, and delves into what it takes to actually do something about it. And that can require a very unconventional approach, by some very unconventional and surprising people.
RK: Emptying the Skies is really a very human film about birds. On the surface, its intent is to explore a desperate crisis of survival for European songbirds that’s of great concern to everyone who made and appeared in the film. By presenting the motivations behind people who are trying to do something about it, though—such as Jonathan Franzen and the others featured in the film—our aim was to reflect upon larger themes about what drives people to go to sometimes extreme lengths in their efforts to positively impact the world around us.
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Your film opens with Jonathan Franzen discussing his article in The New Yorker about the bird poachers, did you connect with him after you read the article or did you have your own interest in the subject beforehand?
RK: I was on summer vacation when I first came across Jonathan’s essay in The New Yorker. I read it because, number one, I was blown away by his novel The Corrections and would basically read anything he wrote after that, and, two, I was at that point becoming increasingly interested in birds. Then, in reading the essay, I was very much drawn to its cinematic vividness and stirred by the personal risks to life and limb Jon and the activists we filmed have repeatedly taken to draw attention to the situation the film depicts.
Before reading Jonathan’s essay, I knew nothing at all about the subject. So I connected with Jonathan after I read the article and he was immediately amenable to working together to amplify his story with a documentary.
I knew that making the film would entail similar risks to our team, but we tried to keep our fears in check in our efforts to bring the story to the much larger audience that really only films can draw.
How do you feel about being deservedly recognized at HIFF this year with the Zelda Penzel “Giving Voice to the Voiceless Award”?
DK: It’s tremendously flattering. Giving a voice to the voiceless is the ultimate reminder of why we do what we do. In a way, it’s the highest of honors. I think Ms. Penzel is way up there on the “coolometer” for thinking of this; it shows a real understanding of the value of documentary, and I couldn’t be more honored.
RK: I’m really delighted because, in many ways, “giving voice to the voiceless” was something we hoped our film would achieve. “Giving voice to the voiceless” is in fact precisely the impetus Jonathan has often cited for covering this topic over the many stories to which he could bring his notoriety and influence to bear.
What do you want audiences to take away from your film?
DK: Besides the ideas that I think are upfront and clear, I hope that people take away some of the nuances. Marty Beller from They Might Be Giants did a phenomenal job on the music. A lot of artistry went into the editing. The cameras went to some very difficult places under difficult circumstances and captured images that people haven’t seen before. And I think that while Franzen’s interview in the film is off the cuff, his answers still have a remarkable quality, at times almost a poetry, especially toward the end.
RK: I know it may sound earnest, but beyond learning about the issues the film addresses in terms of songbird poaching in southern Europe, the notion that every individual can make a difference, no matter how large or small, is one that I really hope the film clearly evokes. If I could leave behind anything of consequence for my children, that would be it.
Do you have one piece of advice for aspiring filmmakers?
RK: Well, as William H. Macy likes to joke, if you live in Los Angeles, take Franklin. But seriously, I would say you can almost never get too much coverage, especially with documentaries.
DK: I say to my students at the outset, “Ma nishtana ha-laila ha-zeh…” In so many words, what makes your story different from all the other stories? If you can’t answer this question about your film, you should think hard about whether or not you need to make it.
What are you most looking forward to at the 2013 Hamptons International Film Festival?
RK: This will be our United States premiere; what else can I say? I’m really looking forward to presenting our film to what I think will be a great audience. And to joining Jonathan for our Q&A after our first screening on Saturday.
Roger Kass is a producer of motion pictures, which include multi-Oscar and Golden Globe nominee A History of Violence, directed by David Cronenberg; Edmond, based on David Mamet’s play and screenplay, starring William H. Macy; Liberty Kid by Ilya Chaiken; the PBS American Masters series Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film; and Ti West’s indie horror hit, The House of the Devil. Mr. Kass is also an entertainment and media lawyer.
Douglas Kass is an Adjunct Professor of Filmmaking and Film Studies at Elon University in the U.S. He earned his Master of Arts degree from the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television and his Bachelor of Arts degree with High Honors in Film/Art from Wesleyan University, where he also received the prestigious Frank Capra Award.