News Column

Elon professor wins award for first full-length documentary

October 26, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 26--ELON -- Next week, Elon University communications instructor Doug Kass will be in Abu Dhabi at a film festival watching his own documentary, "Emptying the Skies."

Kass' documentary premiered at the Sheffield Docs Film Festival in England in June and had its U.S. premiere this month at the Hampton's Film Festival in New York, where it won the Zelda Penzel, "Giving Voice to the Voiceless" Award.

This is the first full-length film Kass directed himself, but he has a long resum working for other filmmakers and making his own short works.

"It's something I've wanted to do for a long time so it's nice to accomplish that goal," Kass said. "Until you do it you don't realize how much is involved."

The documentary is about the tradition of often illegal songbird hunting in Europe where small migrating birds are a delicacy.

The glue and net traps all over the Mediterranean, France and Near East kill close to 30 million birds every year, according to Kass' documentary, and threatens the survival of some kinds of birds.

Kass says it is just one example of the harm people are doing to animal habitats around the world threatening everything from insects to whales.

"We learn new things every day," Kass said, "and generally the news is not good."

Kass is a fan of novelist Jonathan Frazen, author of "The Corrections" and "Freedom." Franzen is also a bird watcher, often called birding. He wrote an essay for the New Yorker called "Emptying the Skies" about European bird hunting.

Kass based his documentary on Franzen's essay and opened it with an interview with Franzen.

Then Kass went to France and Italy to follow the volunteers tromping through the countryside freeing birds and destroying traps.

The film's trailer shows a lot of confrontations between poachers and activists.

"In theory it's great to make a film where you get to go to Europe," Kass said. "In practice it's pretty intense."

Getting the film right meant getting his two-man crew and equipment through rough country following the people trying to outsmart the poachers, and make it all look good at the end.

"We had to scale a mountain in the dark, and it's dangerous," Kass said. "I fell a couple of times."

The subject was new territory for Kass. He needed to learn a lot quickly about a complicated subject, all while doing his day job at Elon and having a life with his wife and daughters.

"I like teaching and I don't want to do it poorly," Kass said. "I don't want to do anything poorly."

There was no deadline on the project, Kass said, but he sees this as an urgent problem, so he wanted to get his message out quickly. It was a rough pace.

"I wouldn't want to do it every year, I'll tell you that," Kass said.

Kass said he is glad to have the issue get more attention around the world. He is also excited about the opportunities the film is bringing him, like going to Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates.

It is an exciting place for a filmmaker to spend time, Kass said, since the government of the United Arab Emirates is trying to build up its own film industry and doing well.

The whole Middle East is attractive for filmmakers, Kass said, since Israel, Iran, Egypt and others have been producing a lot of interesting and innovative films in the past few years.

In November, the film will be at festivals in Toronto, Manhattan and St. Louis. Kass said it probably will not be available on the Internet until sometime next year.

To see the trailer, which is beautifully shot, visit the Facebook page at facebook.com/pages/Emptying-the-Skies/587378221280170.

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(c)2013 Times-News (Burlington, N.C.)

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