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Interview with NATIONAL BIRD Director Sonia Kennebeck

Interview with NATIONAL BIRD Director Sonia Kennebeck


1. NATIONAL BIRD is your feature documentary debut. Why is this a story you felt needed to be told? Did your background as an investigative journalist factor into this in any way?                                  

The use of armed drones has substantially altered the way we wage war. These high-tech devices can track and kill human targets anywhere in the world, even outside of conflict areas and warzones. The operators are often based halfway across the world, in physical safety and with little knowledge of the people and places they attack. This raises a plethora of legal and ethical questions. Nonetheless, the U.S. has been using armed drones for over a decade in complete secrecy, with little oversight or accountability. I wanted to bring transparency to the U.S. drone war through the voices of people directly impacted by it — the operators and analysts working in the drone program, and the victims and survivors in the target countries. Considering the secrecy surrounding this war, finding subjects who could give first person accounts was a major challenge and required a lot of time and research. My background as an investigative journalist was very useful to find the right resources and information that laid the groundwork for NATIONAL BIRD. I also had experience with sensitive military and national security stories, which helped me gain access to the right legal counsel. That legal support turned out to be vital during the production of the film when the government tried to silence the whistleblowers.

2. How did you discover the subjects of the film - Heather, Daniel and Lisa - and gain their trust to be on camera? How did you meet Jesselyn?

I started my research three years ago by speaking to people I knew in the veteran and activist communities, and I studied the drone program by reading declassified military reports and investigations of drone strikes. On an activist website I came across a photograph of a young woman who covered most of her face with a sheet of paper — only her eyes were visible — and on the paper it said something like, “Not everything you hear about the drone program is true. I know what I am talking about.” I was wondering if the woman who was holding the paper was the same person who knew about the drone program. Through a mix of detective work and a bit of luck, I eventually tracked her down. That woman was Heather, my first protagonist, and she had just left the drone program when I first met her. Later, I approached Daniel at an anti-drone protest, and Lisa at a veterans convention. We built up trust through time and preparation. During development, I asked a friend from the intelligence community to introduce me to whistleblower attorney Jesselyn Radack, who also represents Edward Snowden. She has 8 defended many national security whistleblowers, including former senior NSA executive Thomas Drake, and she now represents all three veterans in NATIONAL BIRD.

3. The aerial footage featured throughout the film is remarkable. Was this captured with a drone and what are your thoughts on drones in filmmaking?

Some of the aerial footage we shot with our own small video drone. In more populated areas I worked with licensed drone pilots, and in other places we used a helicopter with a special 90-degree mount and a RED camera to capture the footage. Our method of aerial cinematography really depended on local rules and regulations, and our own sense of safety. My director of photography, Torsten Lapp, was very cautious when he used our video drone and never flew it out of sight. When we started production of this film three years ago, the use of video drones was not really regulated. That has changed. In my mind, it is good to have some restrictions in place for safety reasons and also because video drones can infringe on people’s privacy. Video drones are an affordable and effective filmmaking tool, but I hope they will not be overused. In NATIONAL BIRD, the aerial cinematography serves a clear purpose: we are turning the camera around to make our audience understand what it feels like to live under constant surveillance.

4. The film addresses the hazards of the murky images from Predator drones. As video technology continues to advance, do you think that clearer drone imagery will result in less damage or harm to unintended targets?

The murky, unclear images transmitted by the drone cameras are a serious problem, but there are more factors at play here. One is the physical distance between the operators and analysts from the actual battlefield that is often halfway across the world. They sit in a dark container or in a control room in complete safety in the U.S. and watch their targets on a monitor. It’s detached, inhuman and unreal. We show in the film that drone crews can become sloppy and trigger-happy when they disregard the fact that they are tracking and targeting actual human beings. Then there is a lack of cultural context, so something like a public prayer can be misinterpreted as suspicious gathering and nefarious behavior, which can then trigger a strike. Occasional interferences and delays also add to the inaccuracy of the drone strikes. And the term “surgical strike” is quite a euphemism for bombs that blow up complete buildings. 

5. The film is centered around a drone strike that occurred in 2010. Why did you single out that one event and how did you prepare to interview the survivors of the strike?

Before we traveled to Afghanistan, we had researched multiple airstrikes that have impacted civilians, and we spoke to many survivors, men and women, who wanted to tell their stories. I decided to cover the February 2010 airstrike specifically because General McChrystal had ordered a military investigation, which was later released through a Freedom of Information Act request. The investigation file is about 2,000 pages long and includes not only medical records of the victims and interviews with military personnel involved in the strike, but also a transcript of the radio traffic of a Predator drone crew - so we are fairly certain about what actually happened. Through research and with the help of trusted local guides, we tracked down the families of the victims of this specific incident. We took our time with the Afghan protagonists to get to know them before we set up the main interviews. We wanted to be sensitive and also give them the same attention that we gave our U.S. protagonists, as much as it was possible in a warzone. The filming circumstances were difficult but my director of photography was incredibly respectful and his cinematography reflects that. When we spoke to the Afghan survivors it became immediately clear that they had waited to tell their stories for a long time and wanted their voices to be heard by the world community.

6. What were the biggest challenges in making this film? What obstacles did you encounter while working with government whistleblowers?

Traveling and filming in Afghanistan was the biggest challenge. The security situation has deteriorated in the country and shortly after we arrived there was a large coordinated Taliban attack on the Afghan parliament, which was close to where we stayed. We had to be very cautious during the production, but we worked with excellent and knowledgeable local guides who are well respected in the communities we visited. It was an important journey for the film and also for me personally so that I could understand and appropriately capture the situation of Afghan families living in constant fear, and their heartfelt pledge for peace.

7. Is NATIONAL BIRD the film you set out to make or did it change along the way?

When I started my research, I wanted to make a film about the secret U.S. drone war. Unexpectedly, NATIONAL BIRD also became a film about the cost of whistleblowing under an administration that seems to value secrecy more than our First Amendment rights and doesn't shy away from investigating whistleblowers and journalists.

 8. What do you want people to think about as they are leaving the theater after seeing your film?

First of all, I want people to feel some sort of emotion when they leave the theater - be it sadness, hope or anger. Then they should think about the consequences of the drone war and hopefully discuss the issue with their friends and families. Like previous advancements in military technology, combat drones have outpaced legal and moral frameworks. I think our society has to catch up and the public must decide how we use these weapons -- if we want to use them at all. To make this decision, it is necessary to have information. That’s what I am providing with this film. * This interview is based on previous interviews published in Filmmaker Magazine and