Exclusive: Jonathan Franzen sounds off on bird poaching, climate change and "performing love"

Franzen and filmmaker Roger Kass talk to Salon about the new documentary "Emptying the Skies"

Published April 27, 2015 9:58AM (EDT)

Jonathan Franzen is not done talking about birds.

The author and controversial bird-watcher sounds off about the plight of the Mediterranean's migratory songbirds in "Emptying the Skies," a documentary based on his 2010 essay of the same name. The story, as Franzen told it in the New Yorker, is incredibly grim: Millions of birds flying north through the region each year are illegally shot, snared in nets or, in what even in writing is a difficult image to stomach, hopelessly affixed to sticks that have been coated with lime.

The film, by Douglas Kass and Roger Kass, doesn't shy away from those unpleasant realities. On the contrary, it contributes footage of yet another cruel trapping method: heavy rocks held up precariously by sticks, ready to crush those beneath them at the brush of a feather. But it chooses as its true focus not the poachers, nor Franzen, but instead the dogged members of the Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS), a group of anti-poaching guerrillas who work to counter the threat with at times fanatical-seeming determination: they destroy traps while unsticking and untangling the birds one by one, often at great personal risk from indignant poachers. It's understandable to question their methods, but it's also impossible not to respect the passion that drives them to keep making their small, but, Franzen and Kass both argue, by no means meaningless, difference.

Check out a clip from the film, which opened this week and is also available online, below; Salon's conservation with Franzen and Roger Kass, which has been lightly edited for clarity, follows.

Roger, what attracted you to Jonathan’s essay? And -- perhaps for both of you -- how do you feel turning it into a film enhanced or perhaps changed the story?

RK: What struck me about the article was it was very dramatically written. The subject matter of birds broadly appealed to me, as birds generally do. Jonathan’s writing always appeals to me -- I’m an avid reader of everything he writes. So that combination along with just the sheer drama of the story, how it plays out with heroes and villains and subtleties of interest and tradition versus the world we live in now, the conflict and tension inherent in that. All those things combined to lead me to want to make a film out of it. But viscerally, it leapt off the page to me as the subject matter of what could be a good documentary.

JF: I think the film turned out to be its own thing. Really there’s only one section of a long essay that appears in the film and that has to do with the CABS people, and I spent very little time with them, so I didn’t realize how amazing they were as characters. I think the documentary form lends itself to that kind of intimacy with the characters. Roger finding that archival footage of Andrea playing with the hawk and wandering around naked, communing with the animals, that’s purely stuff that you want to see in a documentary. I ended up feeling there was actually very little overlap, except for the basic fact that enormous numbers of birds are being killed every year, deliberately, unnecessarily and illegally in the Mediterranean.

RK: Jon led us to our central characters in the first place, so the most prominent people in “Emptying the Skies,” the documentary, are featured in Jon’s story, too.

JF: Yes, but in relatively minor roles in my story. I try to write things that can’t be made into movies. My novels have thwarted many attempts to film them and I think that was true of the essay, too. If you’d actually tried to be true to the essay, it would have been, perhaps, boring. So taking that narrow little cast of characters and expanding it out, that was what was exciting about the project for me.

The film skips over some of these larger political forces at play and just really focuses on the members of CABS, and tells this human story about people who are so dedicated to a problem that sort of feels beyond their ability to solve. I was wondering how you think that affects the tone of the story? Because it comes out as a little bit... I don’t want to say hopeless, but it raises more questions about whether this is a problem that even can be solved.

JF: Well I think we live in an era of problems that, if you step back and look at them globally, can’t be solved. One response to that is, “Oh well, it’s all hopeless. The natural world is getting wrecked, birds are disappearing, the planet is warming and so anything we might do on a smaller scale is meaningless.” What is one of the great things about the film is that you see that for the people performing this service, it’s not meaningless. It’s what gives their life meaning. That is because they are thinking locally and they’re thinking individually. They’re thinking, "Here is a hunting problem in the southeast corner of Cyprus that we could do something about." Will it do anything about what’s happening to birds on their wintering ground in Africa? Will it do anything about Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy? No, but here are some things we can help. And the camaraderie among those CABS people and also the joy that they get in small successes, that becomes a different kind of meaning. To my mind, it’s therefore not hopeless; it gives me hope that if you find the right thing, if you find something that is meaningful to you, that’s really what matters.

I think a lot of people in the environmental community can take some inspiration from that message and will probably identify with the characters. They’re extreme, but they’re definitely coming at this from a place where, even if individuals aren’t going to make a huge difference, just being out there taking action is better than nothing.

JF: I appreciated that it’s not a horror film, it’s not simply about the sadness of what people do to animals. I don’t feel as if the film is trying to shock me. I do think it’s trying to bring news and I think particularly as it’s released in Europe, that’s useful and important news that can be part of the political conversation over there. But by not making it just endless pictures of blood on the ground, it became a very different kind of thing.

RK: We tried to convey the hopeful mindset of the characters as they pursue this occupation. I’ve seen the movie so many times at this point I can quote it verbatim, but one of our characters, the Milanese banker Sergio, at one point explains what his father taught him, which was basically that if you do your one percent and your neighbor does one percent, pretty soon you have five percent, 10 percent. Part of what we’re trying to get across is the dedication of people to a passion, to a cause, and trying to do some good, whatever realm it is, whether it’s the environment or otherwise. That to me is a hopeful message. It’s something that I hope comes across broadly and generally in the film.

Have either of you come away from this with ideas about larger solutions that might work, either to better control or to stop illegal poaching? Do you feel like this is a problem that can be solved on a larger scale?

JF: Mechanisms exist through the European Union and the European Commission, the European Court of Justice. I think actually keeping the pressure up, continuing to create incidents that get a lot of press, it does actually force the governing bodies in Europe -- and all of the places in the film are member states. I actually think it can have an effect. In Malta, which the film doesn’t cover but where CABS goes every year, they have a terrible problem with the four percent of the population on Malta who hunt. Although it recently failed by 2,000 votes, there was a referendum to ban hunting of birds in the spring. One of these days that will succeed; it will go 2,000 votes the other way and the ridiculous thing of killing birds on their way to breed will stop.

Elsewhere in the Mediterranean, I also subsequently wrote another piece about the Balkans and about Egypt, where things are even worse than where CABS is able to operate. In Albania, one of the results was a complete two-year ban on hunting. People in Northern Europe will report that they’re suddenly seeing more ducks and geese because the birds are able to rest up, feed and proceed to their breeding grounds. So it’s not nothing.

The context is one in which there are all these other threats to wildlife of all kinds. First and foremost, habitat loss. There’s nothing immediate that we can do to stop that decline, but when you have this additional toll -- and the toll is hundreds of millions -- whenever that is rolled back you actually see a measurable result. Populations are larger, reported populations are larger. Wild animals, birds in particular, need all the help they can get. It’s like, yeah, okay, we might not be able to do much about global warming and we might not be able to do much about the fact that European forests are now managed forests rather than real forests, but here’s something we can do something about. This is voluntary; people don’t actually have to eat little warblers. They could stop and it’s not going to make their life harder, it’s not going to make their food more expensive, it’s not going to alter their ability to take care of their families. So, I think this is the rare problem that is kind of soluble.

I think one of the things that Roger’s film really emphasized was the people who are poaching migratory birds see it as a tradition, it’s something they’ve been doing for so long. They’re not going to be easily talked out of doing it or changing their mindset. It does seem to me like there are some parallels there between some of these bigger problems like habitat loss or climate change, where part of the fight is just getting people to rethink their actions and from there, yes, building broader government action -- but starting from that place where people need to rethink the way they’re living their lives.

JF: Exactly, and tradition is always a double-edged thing. On the one hand, we honor tradition, we respect tradition. But if the tradition is forced marriage or genital mutilation, we say not okay. Might have once been okay, no longer okay in the world community. It’s hard and there will be pushback and violent pushback -- literal violence against the CABS people. That’s to be expected, but it’s not really excusable on the basis of tradition.

There’s been a lot of conversation sparked by you more recent article, about this choice between climate action and conservation. A lot of people felt, and I felt as well, that this is a bit of a false choice. Do you picture people watching this film, or the audience that it would appeal to, as being distinct from the people who care about climate change? What would you argue is stopping people from caring about both issues or seeing that common need to enact change in both of those areas?

JF: I think it’s a no-brainer that you have to care about both, and that’s what I was arguing in my article. If you get too caught up in thinking, "Well, none of this matters if we don’t get a handle on climate change," then you end up with a situation where there’s nothing left to save 50 years down the road when you maybe have turned the corner on carbon emissions. You have to do both, and I think people who are not invested in one or the other to the exclusion of the other get that. I would imagine most audiences would come and feel like, yeah, we have to emit less carbon and we also have to take care of what nature we still have.

I’m wondering, Roger, in the time you spent with the CABS members, did they spend a lot of time thinking about or focusing on those larger forces? Or were they more paying attention to what’s happening right in front of them, saving one bird at a time that’s been caught in these traps?

RK: While we were driving from location to location, we would have discussions about larger issues like climate change, like the way European government operates, the way the American government operates, all sorts of issues because we were driving around for hours and spending a lot of time together. But when they are on what they call their missions at these migration pinch points, they are pretty much 24/7 dedicated to their job and focusing all the time on either what they’re doing or what they’re about to do. I don’t know if it comes across in the film, but they barely sleep. When they sleep, it’s intermittently -- they don’t take long, eight-hour sleeps. They’re just on the move constantly, day and night, because they have night missions and day missions. They’re just committed to the cause at that point.

JF: But someone like Andrea Rutigliano, who is kind of the central figure ultimately in the film, he is absolutely that way when he’s in the field, but he is in fact an incredibly intelligent, accomplished big thinker as well. So when he’s at home, when I’m getting emails from him, we’re talking about the larger picture. He’s aware of it, it’s just he’s not going to set aside the passionate work and say, “Oh, well we have to concentrate on the bigger picture.” But in my experience, Andrea is very, very aware of it.

RK: I agree with that.

Does he strike you as an extremist?

JF: I was just writing to him yesterday. He’d written me a long and very sympathetic note about my New Yorker piece about climate change. I was writing back and I have to say, he’s given me a hard time for years about the fact that I use the word “fanaticism” in relation to him. He teases me about it, but I can tell it’s not just teasing. He has really wanted me to understand, “No, that's not the right word for me.” I finally yesterday said, “OK, once and for all, I’m sorry about that word. It was the wrong word choice.” That was my initial hit, because I don’t come from a world of extremists and in general, to me they call to mind anti-abortion extremists, or people in compounds in Idaho. I got a little bit of a hit like that off Andrea initially, and it’s only as I’ve gotten to know him better that I realize he and I think almost exactly alike, and that he was right before I knew he was right. I reach for religious metaphors to talk about it. In the film I talk about performing love, and I think that there is something, I can’t find a better word than Franciscan for that. Are Franciscans fanatics or extremists? Or are they something else? I’m inclined to think that what is essentially a religious choice about how to live your life (although without reference to God), I think we do it a disservice if we apply a word like “fanatic” to it.

The fight for climate action is often disparaged as being a "religion" also. It kind of seems like when you’re coming against any of these enormous problems, that anything less won’t really do.

JF: Right, right. But there are different modalities of religion. There’s something... you want to talk about Christianity? I could talk about Christianity. I feel that if you look at the New Testament, it’s a gospel of love. Yes, there’s talk of judgement and there’s talk of heaven and there’s talk of people not getting into heaven, but it doesn’t seem to me that the fundamental message of the gospels was one of guilt and retribution so much as love. So if you have to choose between modalities, that’s the one I would choose. But we’re getting quite far from the film here; I’ll shut up.

We can go back to the film.

But it is striking. These are Italians, and Italians are such a mixed bag. Some of them are terrible, complete trashers of nature, and then you have this other strain in the peninsular character that is just like, they're fools for animals.

You're thinking of the part of the film with the animal sanctuary...

RK: Piero, in Valle Vegan.

Right, where they’re really sharing everything with the animals who live there.

JF: Right, yeah, that’s great. The pig in that, I loved that.

That definitely portrays the kind of people you're talking about -- people who are approaching other creatures with that kind of love, the same love that’s driving the CABS people to peel these birds off lime-covered sticks, one by one.

RK: Their interest in animals is not based on how they can serve people. I’ve heard Andrea asked more than once why should anybody care about birds? And he will say, “Because they’re beautiful animals. Like all of nature they are things of beauty and they exist and they’re part of the world.” He will say, “I could go on about how they’re like bees and help pollinate and they do this for men and that for men, but actually that doesn’t really interest me at all. What really interests me is that they are part of nature and I love nature and it comes from my core.” That’s his approach to nature as a whole.

Do you think solving the problem of poaching goes beyond making utilitarian arguments, that we need these birds for all these practical reasons?

RK: What I’m saying is that they from the CABS point of view, especially Andreas, he is not thinking, "Well, I’ve got to save these birds because otherwise, how will the crops be pollinated?" Or, ‘"What will happen to biodiversity without birds?" He’s very intelligent, he’s obviously aware of all these issues, but he is trying to solve the problem of bird poaching because he loves birds.

JF: I think more broadly, there has been a general trend in the environmental movement over the last couple of decades to try to learn to speak the language of economics and capitalism and human values, things like ecosystem services. I’m not sanguine about the success of that approach, because if you just suddenly decide, well, yeah, this ecosystem is providing some services, but it’s not providing enough, and the golf course and resort we’d like to build there will provide better economic services. If you take away some absolute commitment to keeping the world full of diversity, really nothing is finally safe. So one thing I like about CABS and about bird people in general is they tend to make an absolute argument. Who cares if you’re getting your money’s worth from these wild species? If you’re not, it still doesn’t mean you can just dispense with them.

By Lindsay Abrams

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Birds Climate Change Emptying The Skies Jonathan Franzen Poaching Video