National Bird (2016), Produced and Directed by Sonia Kennebeck—
What happens to humanity when you take the humanity out of warfare? The documentary, National Bird, which opens in theaters in New York and around the country on Veterans Day, November 11, addresses this question head on. The official argument would have us believe, that at least in the US, humanity benefits. Our servicemen and women conduct war safely, here at home, playing with cool technology that negates injury and losses. But, as with any adoption of a new technology, the planned effects may differ drastically from the actual outcome. National Bird offers us an opportunity to see this war through the eyes of both the operators and their victims.
The film follows three veterans of the drone wars as they struggle, each in separate ways, to make sense of and reparations for the terrible things they’ve experienced as part of a giant spying/killing machine that is the US controlled drone program. Detailed research, thoughtful photography, chilling international intrigue and a genuine interest in its protagonists, all contribute to make this film interesting and emotionally powerful. Director and investigative journalist, Sonia Kennebeck, has achieved her stated goal of “getting beyond the sanitized way we think of war, the talking heads and technical details, and getting down to the actual, human consequences.”
We all know that veteran suicide is epidemic, but little has been done to find out how wars waged around the globe from the confines of the United States, have affected the military personnel who fight it. Of the three protagonists, Lisa, who joined the military to be a nurse, ended up in the job of singling out people for death. Former intelligence analyst, Daniel, moves around, going from protest to protest. ( Daniel was working as a private contractor when we started filming, then quit his job to go to college. He was homeless before he entered the the Air Force.) Heather, a former drone imagery analyst, who came forward in an op-ed she wrote for The Guardian while still being filmed for National Bird, was on a suicide watch list but forced to continue working, watching people die until she was discharged from the military.
“We were omniscient in people’s lives,” says Heather, “you literally just hover over their area. Sometimes you would watch them for days and then you’d have intel that this guy is a bad guy and you wait until he walks out into the field to meet his friends for something and you’d blow him up. Drop a Hellfire Missile on him.” “It was like slow motion and it was like you’re watching someone just drag themselves across a field and when you watch someone in those dying moments, … it’s so primitive.” The people that really get the impact,” says Lisa, “besides the people on the distant end that are getting hit by these weapons, are all the new recruits that are coming in. The people that are being affected are America’s children. People die, things get destroyed, and people who are aged 18 to 24 sit and watch it.”
Lisa travels with the film crew travel to Afghanistan with her friend Asma, who goes there every year on humanitarian missions, to meet with victims of a drone strike. Drones and helicopters haunt the sky above the film crew as these people from two sides of an ongoing conflict get the chance to see each other’s humanity. The families they meet with, were bombed, by US forces on February 21, 2010. An official military investigation concludes that a Predator drone crew operating out of Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, Nevada was responsible for the strike. The victims traveled for 3 days and 3 nights to meet them. “Our reason for traveling such a long way,” says one, “is so that the world can hear our voice and hear about our helpless situation.”
As the audience, we now watch the actual attack from the drone operator’s POV with a voiceover read from the transcript of the original dialogue of the drone pilots during the strikes. We can see, clearly, how little they can actually see: tiny dots, like ants walking slowly, in single file. This is the all seeing but lacking feeling, understanding and cultural context, vision of a drone video feed and the drone operators callousness in the transcript seems to reflect that. Their bloodlust combined with the minimalism of the feed is intense in its very, as Heather says: primitivism. This primitivism contrasts starkly with the dripping wet slickness of the Mission Impossible style Air Force recruitment footage that Kennebeck has dug up, and makes it all the more intense. For these footage clips alone, the film is worth seeing.
This is a film made primarily by women. The director, producer and editor of this film, are all women, as well as two of the three protagonists. The feminine take is perhaps apparent in the stress on humanity over technology. The film is intensely interested in the lives of the people it follows, which allows us to see the very personal side of this conflict, something that has been mostly stripped from the current drone narrative. The only male in the core production team, Director of Photography, Torsten Lapp, keeps the camera low and intimate at the same time as it appears to spy on its subjects. The film peers through windows and floats above their neighborhoods like a ghost.
These magnificent aerial drone views of Afghanistan and suburban America show us what it could be like to live under drones if the tables were turned. It asks the viewer to examine what it could be like for people living in a war torn country under constant armed surveillance. It may creep into your consciousness that it’s not hard to make the leap from watching people, to thinking somebody’s watching you. The eerie sensation is enhanced by window shots that hint of video screens and ceiling fans like overhead propellers while the film’s blue gray tint reminds me of what they say on Game of Thrones: “Winter is coming.”
For screening times please visit nationalbirdfilm.com
Of the three whistleblowers in the film, Lisa is the only one who showed up for the U.S. premiere, accompanied by her attorney, Jesselyn Radack, who represents Ed Snowden, John Kiriakou and Thomas Drake as well as several other drone whistleblowers. Daniel’s future is in jeopardy after an FBI search that took place during the shooting of the film. The risk he and the other protagonists have taken in appearing in this film is tremendous. We live under an administration that has prosecuted more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act than ALL previous administrations together in the history of the United States. It matters not that there are no national secrets revealed in this film.
Hopefully the risks will have been worth it. As I write, there are people: in parliaments, in news agencies, soldiers, civilians and others around the world who are paying serious attention to this film. Questions are finally getting asked. People are coming out, speaking up and challenging the claim that drones are “surgical” weapons. “What [drones] really do,” says Daniel, “is they embolden commanders. They embolden decision makers, because there is no direct threat. There is no immediate consequence.” But what of the long-term consequences? Perhaps we are creating irreparable damage on both sides of America’s longest war.
What’s a number to a dumb computer??
When you come from a place where making a living Is making a killing?
Shifting through feeds then it’s on to the next spot.?
The destroyer of worlds, I became it on Xbox.?
I mean it’s cynical son.
Why you think? Call of Duty donates money to the Wounded Warrior fund?
The Last Starfighter hovers over Jalalabad
Takes out a target and is home for the soccer game
What have I become? What has war become?
There ain’t no citizens in this new Rome.