Right now in the Mediterranean, millions of endangered songbirds are dying at the hands of hunters who, for recreational, culinary, economic, or traditional reasons, refuse to stop the bloodshed. While avian trapping and hunting is illegal in the EU, the laws are barely enforced in countries like Malta, Cyprus, as well as regions like Southern France, allowing trappers and hunters to kill endangered bird species with relative impunity. Douglas and Roger Kass’ first documentary feature, Emptying the Skies, sheds some much needed light on this problem, as well as the activists that are doing their part to save the songbirds of the Mediterranean basin.

Emptying the Skies focuses upon the confrontational German anti-trapping group CABS (Committee Against Bird Slaughter). Throughout the course of the film, the audience gets a front-row seat to watch CABS members destroy countless traps to set innumerable birds free, run afoul of some incensed hunters, and generally cause havoc among the bird-killing human populations of the Mediterranean.

Kass smartly supplements the CABS exploits with contextualizing talking-head interviews, including author Jonathan Franzen (who wrote the eponymous New Yorker essay from which the film draws its inspiration), German Ornithologist Peter Berthold, and other bird lovers who lament the violent loss of the region’s many songbirds.

Emptying the Skies is a tight, thriller-like documentary, but like many activism-centric films (e.g. The Cove and If a Tree Falls), it allows for no dissenting voices from hunting advocates or regional politicians. Predictably, Kass also targets cavalier food aficionados (both famous and quotidian) who try the Mediterranean delicacy of ambelopoulia, wherein small songbirds are fried, served, and ingested bones-and-all. While acknowledging the inhumane and cruel fine-dining and hunting practices deals some damning rhetorical blows to the region’s at-best lackadaisical law enforcement community, Emptying the Skies tendency to condemn sometimes becomes pedantic and overbearing.

The film is most effective when following the guileless CABS members, displaying no Doolittle-esque friendships with the birds they set free. As Franzen notes, all the birds want to be is “away.” Despite the apparent lack of appreciation in the rescued songbirds, the CABS members push on, trying their best to end the killing. In the film’s poignant closing sequence, CABS members set numerous caged birds free, watching them thanklessly fly out of sight. In this, Emptying the Skies beautifully illustrates the complex relationship between modern humanity and wild animals: whether in a cage or on a plate, they never belong in a house.