DOC NYC closing night

Jonathan Franzen on bird protection, and a look at the work of Michel Gondry.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Closing Night Gala World Premiere Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy? An Animated Conversation With Noam Chomsky and a Special Event presentation by Jonathan Franzen of Emptying the Skies winds up DOC NYC.
Closing Night Gala World Premiere Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy? An Animated Conversation With Noam Chomsky and a Special Event presentation by Jonathan Franzen of Emptying the Skies winds up DOC NYC.

DOC NYC's Closing Night Gala World Premiere screening of Michel Gondry's graphic Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy? An Animated Conversation With Noam Chomsky and a Special Event presentation by Jonathan Franzen of Emptying The Skies ended the 4th edition of the festival on a high note at the SVA Theatre in Chelsea.

Emptying The Skies, directed by Douglas Kass, based on Jonathan Franzen's 2011 essay for The New Yorker, begins with the novelist's life-changing realisation that it is "a bird-filled world" we live in for now. The film follows a group of noble and brave members of CABS, the Committee Against Bird Slaughter in their travels to the Republic of Cyprus, Malta, France, Italy, all over Europe, where they dismantle traps. The nature of the cruelty is shown as the activists destroy variations of killing mechanisms that range from lime sticks that glue birds to branches, rock constructions that smash delicate creatures in search of berries or slicing bow traps that strangle them while perching.

DOC NYC Artistic Director Thom Powers with Emptying The Skies producer Roger Kass on CABS members, Andrea, Sergio, and Piero: "The reason none of them is here is because on Saturday, they are facing a trial in Cyprus".
DOC NYC Artistic Director Thom Powers with Emptying The Skies producer Roger Kass on CABS members, Andrea, Sergio, and Piero: "The reason none of them is here is because on Saturday, they are facing a trial in Cyprus".

Jonathan Franzen, who had joined them in Cyprus for a while as part of his research and was also attacked, sums their actions up as "at the deepest level they are performing love for the animals".

During the post screening discussion with DOC NYC Artistic Director Thom Powers, Franzen expanded on several issues:

Jonathan Franzen: These are organised criminal gangs doing the wholesale-ing, especially in Cyprus. It's the same people who are moving drugs and weapons and laundering cash. Fewer kids are eating the birds so it will die out… Cyprus is not that into European style of law. It's a Middle Eastern country that is accidentally part of the European Union. The person who took my statement about the attack [on the activists, including himself] said 'you know, we wish these guys were not so in our faces. Just let it go away by itself.' It's your neighbor and there's enough mom and pop trapping - your grandpa is out in the backyard with his lime sticks. People are a little sensitive about thinking of their grandpas as criminals.

Trapping of songbirds is illegal in Europe today and the poaching of birds is connected to Mafia-like organisations who are also involved with drugs and prostitution - criminal involvements similar to what Simon Trevor exposes on the poaching of African Elephant tusks in his film White Gold.

JF: There's generally shock. A lot of Europeans are at least a little bit aware of it, have been on vacation in Malta. They know you actually can't take a walk in the countryside because maniacs with guns are everywhere killing anything that flies. If you travel over the Mediterranean you are aware to some extent what's going on. So it's really America where we just don't eat little birds, that you have "Oh my god, how could this be happening? I thought it was pretty, the Mediterranean! "

Emptying The Skies exposes the nature of the cruelty as the activists destroy variations of killing mechanisms.
Emptying The Skies exposes the nature of the cruelty as the activists destroy variations of killing mechanisms.

Clips from an English-speaking cooking show demonstrate the absurdity. To savour the taste and smell of the little bird that was drowned in Armagnac, it is supposed to be eaten with a napkin over your head. The Buñuelian dinner guests at the restaurant table resemble Bag Head Number Two out of Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained. The cooking show moderator's commentary that if he paid the owner for the meal, he would be breaking the law, sums up the casualness and lack of any real enforcement.

JF: I think the French are getting away with murder but they do it the French way and you think, it's okay, it's French, it's lovely. And it tastes good, it must be alright. Sorry. It's the 100th anniversary of the publication of [Marcel Proust's] Swann's Way, so we should not be too harsh on the French.

Many of the songbirds are endangered species with rapidly declining populations. Migrating birds are especially vulnerable and face too many obstacles already such as climate change and unfriendly habitats that could lead to their extinction.

Jonathan Franzen: "at the deepest level they are performing love for the animals".
Jonathan Franzen: "at the deepest level they are performing love for the animals". Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

JF: It was sort of a historical accident. The Mediterranean as a region is perhaps the worst in the world, precisely because it was so civilised, settled so early, so densely and there was always billions and billions of birds coming through in spring and fall and it was valuable protein…The number of hunters in Italy has collapsed. There's great concern on the part of the hunters that there will soon be no more hunters in Italy. They are actually trying to have youth education programs to expose children to the pleasure of hunting and the importance of hunting. Because in fact, nature education, particularly just through nature shows on television has been very very effective. Much of Italy is urban and they don't care about hunting. So in a general way in well regulated countries like Italy the trend is good. The average age of people killing birds is high.

The documentary's focus is on the additional handicap of traditions of trapping birds and cooking them as delicacies. Monks did it, grandpa did it, how wrong can it be? Very, should be the answer.

JF: What I saw in Egypt, I spoke mostly to hunters, dozens and dozens of them. It's as if you were to go down to Mississippi and say: 'We are just fanatical lovers of catfish. What the hell are you doing, killing catfish?' You would be stared at as if you were insane. It's catfish! It's as close as you can come to understanding what it is. That's what you did as a boy.

Emptying The Skies focuses on three of the Italian CABS members, Andrea, Sergio, and Piero. Andrea, sums up the urgency - "we are running out of time." The activists do a dangerous job. They are repeatedly beaten up and shot at. They are currently facing a trial in Cyprus for trespassing. Producer Roger Kass gave an update after the New York premiere and explained why Andrea, Sergio, and Piero could not come to the screening: "The reason none of them is here is because on Saturday, they are facing a trial in Cyprus. During the migration in September and October they were all beaten up very badly again and this time a lawsuit was brought against them. They are being sued in a civil action, not a criminal action for trespass and destruction of property."

Michel Gondry could be asked: Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy? following his World Premiere at the SVA Theatre.
Michel Gondry could be asked: Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy? following his World Premiere at the SVA Theatre. Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Michel Gondry presented his latest inquiry into the mind of another kind.

In his Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy? An Animated Conversation With Noam Chomsky feature, Michel Gondry ingeniously animates his conversation with Chomsky, 98% through his drawings and the rest filmed with his old mechanical Bolex camera. He asks Chomsky about the first memory of his life and the answer includes a kitchen counter, oatmeal and an aunt. "Children know a lot of language before they can exhibit it," the linguist states, and says that he barely remembers high school, a dialogue accompanied by Gondry's drawing of boys riding their bikes through a forest. You should be puzzled. Isaac Newton demonstrated that there are occult forces and inherent mysteries - the world is not a machine.

Michel Gondry in Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy? An Animated Conversation With Noam Chomsky
Michel Gondry in Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy? An Animated Conversation With Noam Chomsky

Chomsky talks about his life, explains evolution and mutation while Gondry draws his own visual interpretations. It is fascinating to watch as it becomes more and more obvious that we are looking at two impressive minds at work discussing the "complex continuity", the property we impose on the world around us. Why we know that the transformed frog is still an enchanted prince, teleportation, and what needs to happen for us to no longer call a river a river - these are the questions tackled. Sometimes, the language barrier shows itself and Gondry for example misunderstands the English word "yield" as "eel", which leads to fetching fish drawings that illuminate communication splinters instead of hiding them.

Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy? An Animated Conversation With Noam Chomsky opens in New York on November 22.

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