At one point in Sonia Kennebeck’s arresting debut “National Bird,” the director follows Lisa Ling, a former technical sergeant in the U.S. Air Force (seen above), to Afghanistan with a friend to do humanitarian work. Ling has made a point of visiting countries her unit once surveyed from above looking for targets with drones, wanting to see for herself just what happens to those affected by a strike that was initiated a world away.
“I lost part of my humanity working in the drone program,” says Ling, contemplating the military action she was a part of as her friend meets with a family who lost loved ones in an attack near the village of Shahidi Hassas in Oruzgan Province on February 21, 2010.
Ling’s desire to understand what happens on the other end of a drone strike is just one of the ways in Kennebeck is able to bring humanity into “National Bird,” which puts the abstract but immense power of drone technology into emotionally tactile perspective. Though the film takes great care to give voice to the Middle Eastern victims of U.S. drone strikes, one only needs to observe the wear on the three Americans the film profiles - Lisa, Heather, a young former drone imagery analyst in the Air Force, and Daniel, who once did similar work for a private contractor – as they grapple with their complicity in this new era of warfare to see the profound effects that have not yet been comprehended fully, if at all, by those with their finger on the trigger, let alone the public on whose behalf the drones are being deployed. The film follows the three as they embark on the difficult task of raising public awareness of the drone program as they rediscover who they are following their time in combat, a road made more difficult as the past continues to revisit them, whether it is the PTSD suffered by Heather as she attempts to reinvent herself as a massuse or the FBI raids that follow Daniel home as the threat of espionage charges loom.
While the subject should be of great interest, Kennebeck, an investigative journalist who received her master’s degree in International Affairs from American University in Washington D.C., shows a gift for making it uniquely compelling, demonstrating both a depth of knowledge and an eye for striking visuals that cut to quick in an area shrouded in mystery. As the film begins to open theatrically around the country after premiering at the Berlin and Tribeca Film Festivals, Kennebeck, the film’s producer Ines Hofmann Kanna and Ling spoke about the challenges of personalizing a story rooted in technological change, handling incredibly sensitive subject matter, and responsibly recreating a drone attack – and why some audiences actually refuse to believe it’s unreal.
Sonia Kennebeck: I’m very interested in technology, especially in wars of conflict and national security — it’s my area of expertise, and I had been reading articles about the drone war. It was mainly commentary from journalists, but you didn’t hear the voice of the people from the inside the drone program or people who are directly impacted or affected in the target countries, so my goal was to bring the humanity back into this high-tech war.
I had done stories about traumatized veterans before, so I first contacted them and went onto web pages and communities where they’re posting things that are of interest to these groups. I came across a photograph of a young woman holding up a sheet of paper, covering up her face and you could only see her eyes, and the sheet of paper, said something like “Not everything you hear about the drone program is true. I know what I’m talking about.” I was curious about this young woman who knows about the drone program and I tried to find her. That was Heather and there was detective work, cross-referencing people [until] I saw a really small profile photograph of her. I recognized her eyes and I contacted her, [asking,] “Is this you? And do you know about [the drone program]?” And she said, “Yes, I worked on it.” I asked her to meet, about a year before she published an article in The Guardian, and then I met Daniel at a protest and I met Lisa at a veterans’ conference.
Logistically, was this difficult to figure out?
Sonia Kennebeck: I was traveling a lot. [laughs] And of course, that’s why you cannot make a film like this on a very low budget just because of the travel expenses — going to a place like Afghanistan, you need health insurance on these flights. But in terms of the shooting schedule, we filmed very often because this is a film about the people and I wanted to show development. This wasn’t a regular talking head documentary where you do an interview and maybe you do a follow-up interview and this is it. We wanted to follow their journeys and you can actually see, especially with Daniel and Heather, who are both very young still, [they’re] going through a lot of things in their lives [since] they had just left the military and are getting their lives together. In the main year of production last year, I filmed almost every month. I flew over, I edited and filmed at the same time. I did the last shot a week before picture lock and I think that’s what makes it so moving as well — we couldn’t actually mix the interviews [chronologically]. We couldn’t do a later interview with Heather and put it at the beginning of the film because she changed so dramatically. She was so very young and fragile when she left the military and it was very, very close to her and I think you can see throughout the film her ups and her downs, and then Daniel deals with the U.S. government raids, intimidating and investigating him for espionage — you see the consequences of whistle blowing, so I think that’s what gets the people because you can see that development and it’s real.
Ines Hofmann Kanna: Daniel’s a really, really good example of how if you’re doing a documentary, you can’t control a production schedule. Sonia had the patience to say, “Daniel, you’re not so great today. You know what? Maybe we’ll just hang out and spend time with you.” This is something that’s sometimes lost. When you see the finished film, it seems like it all falls into place so perfectly, but the production process isn’t easy because you have to be patient. You have to fly around a lot, you have to make things work, you have to start editing [as you’re filming].
There was a lot of patience involved. Sonia didn’t just meet these people. She also talked to them [where] there was time to develop a trust and you’re not just going to bring your camera and start shooting the subject. And that’s what makes it different from regular journalistic work and TV docs where you can say, “I’m shooting with you today, and that’s it. That’s our interview.” It doesn’t work like that. It takes more time.
Lisa Ling: I vetted Sonia. I totally vetted Sonia. It was not just a yes.
Ines Hofmann Kanna: If she said, “Oh tomorrow, I want to come and do the interview,” you would’ve [said]…
Lisa Ling: Oh, I would’ve said no. Not a doubt in my mind.
Lisa Ling: I knew that I worked in a program that should be discussed and that some of the stuff that I witnessed should probably see the light of day, but I wasn’t really quite sure of what to do. I don’t trust lawyers and journalists, so the first time I met Sonia, in passing at this veterans’ convention, she said let’s meet in California and we talked. It sounded like she put a lot of effort and work in and then she said, “Well, I’d like you to go on the record,” and I was like, “Really? Maybe not so much.” But she came back and she had this binder full of all the research that she’s done as an investigative reporter — I didn’t even know some of these things were in the public realm — and to this day, she’s the only journalist I trust.
Sonia Kennebeck: With this type of film [about] national security, you cannot be pushy. You have to be careful and really think things through. I actually had a conversation yesterday at a screening with someone who wants to do a very sensitive film with victims of a crime. She [asked], “If they don’t want to give an interview, how do you push people to do an interview?” And I said, “I don’t.” Especially with my specific work that has so many risks and I talk to all my protagonists about it – we’re trying to minimize the risk, but it’s not gone. There is a risk doing these types of films about whistleblowing in a country like this with a government like this that really prosecutes whistleblowers. With these types of films, you cannot try to talk your protagonists into something.
Lisa Ling: And in this film, all of us are familiar with technology and [the fact] there’s no way for reporters or journalists to actually protect us. If they tried to sideswipe that truth right there, I’d have definitely said no, but Sonia laid out the risk and was honest the whole time. Like I didn’t want to do a protest film where [it seemed like] I’m totally against this. I really wanted the public to know and Sonia seemed like the right person to put it out.
Lisa, was the drone program something you knew you could be moved into when you joined the military or did being placed there come as a surprise?
Lisa Ling: I was doing medical in the Air Force, which was technical, because computers and geeky stuff has been my hobby forever, and I was waivered into the position, and I was in combat communications so I did deploy. I went out of the country as combat con and came back and what happened was my unit transitioned into a drone unit while I was in it. The first time I saw the technology, it was awesome – I love technology, but it wasn’t connected to the killing machine that the drone program basically is. When I got into the drone program, I was living this total schizophrenic life [where] it was bizarre because the public doesn’t know about it or talk about it and they’ll always say things like “Thank you for your service,” whenever they find out you’re [military], yet they’re so disconnected to what that means.
Lisa’s trip to Afghanistan to meet with the victims of the February 22, 2010 drone attack actually gives the film its shape. Was that something that was there from the start?
Lisa Ling: I knew I was going. But I didn’t know [the filmmakers] were. [laughs]
Sonia Kennebeck: In the first concept I wrote, I wrote about drone victims and survivors in Afghanistan that I wanted to interview and before I even met Lisa, I Skyped with the family of a different drone strike than the one that’s in the film, but [because] I knew that drones are very heavily used in Afghanistan, I really wanted to speak to people who live in a country where drones are a constant threat. Once I met Lisa, she said in our first conversation, “I’ve been to Afghanistan and I want to travel to these countries that are affected by drones because I want to really understand what happens on the ground. I fought the war from a far distance and I want to really understand the full story,” so it was perfect because it connected these two sides of a story. This is a global weapon – that’s why I think this has to be a global film [where] we have to show these two sides and what Lisa is doing I think is amazing because she’s really bridging the distance that this technology has created.
Lisa Ling: I’ve met victims [before] and it’s a clear testament to their character how they’ve treated me, knowing that I worked on a program that could’ve lost limbs or killed their relatives. That’s part of what people don’t understand because the humanity is taken out of it. [When you hear] we bomb compounds, that’s not a compound. That’s somebody’s house. The words are completely sanitized. And there’s a huge piece of humanity that’s missing – a huge piece – and our [American] culture is infant, comparatively speaking, to these folks who have been around for thousands of years. Hospitality is one of the things the Afghan population is famous for, but nobody says that anymore. Now they’re terrorists – and they’re not. They’re people. We’ve got to stop thinking everybody who is Muslim is a terrorist. We have to start seeing people as human beings. Our entire humanity depends on that.
Sonia, you’re able to say so much visually about such an abstract subject, often shooting outside of people’s houses where you’re observing as a drone would. How did you come up with the film’s style?
Sonia Kennebeck: My [director of photography] Torsten Lapp and I really paid a lot of attention to detail and there were a lot of things that we really discussed beforehand – the symbolism of ceiling fans and also the sound design is repetitive with the helicopters. There’s a lot of framing – there’s this one shot where we’re watching Heather through a window with her family [at home] and it has this natural framing because we’re outside in the dark and it has this black frame. Because it was her job to watch the live video coming from the drones, she was watching other people and we turned the camera around and we are watching her, so we framed the drone videos to that window in the sizing, so we’re watching her a lot through windows and from afar and then we are watching the audience in a way through our drone shots, so they have an understanding of what it must feel like to be under surveillance.
I chose the documentary form [for “National Bird”] because I wanted to make this a feature-length film because the issue itself is so large and so multi-layered. You have the PTSD, you have the stories of the people who are fighting the war and just you have to explain how this technology works and what it has changed in warfare and then also the stories of the victims. The documentary form allows for so many different layers. I think the visuals and the sound are something that you feel here [pointing at heart] and here [pointing at head] where you can bring across a different message.
As someone said after a screening [recently] where they saw the first shot of a bomb being dropped and Heather talking about it, and then when we introduce Lisa and we have the first aerial shot over a neighborhood in the U.S, “These shots are so disturbing because [after seeing the bomb] it always crosses your mind when something is flying over these neighborhoods, it could happen here too.” And I think that is the visual story that we can tell with a cinematic documentary film. Then of course, these helicopters were flying over our heads in Afghanistan as we were doing the interview [with the survivors of the attack], and when it’s Dolby surround sound around you [in a theater] and you see the woman and you hear a lot of deep bass sounds, it creates this feeling of not being comfortable. That’s the special thing about cinema where you can have all these layers.
Was it interesting to recreate the drone attack? Not necessarily in a technical sense, but to understand everything that goes into it?
Sonia Kennebeck: I want to do fiction films too, so it’s my start. [laughs] And everybody actually thought [it was real], even though we say through every single shot [with a subtitle saying that it’s a reenactment]…
Ines Hofmann Kanna: People don’t see it!
Lisa Ling: That’s like the denial that I think this film breaks through. We have had a long held myth of American exceptionalism. We started out in our childhood, at least from my generation, putting our hand over our hearts and saying the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag, but to realize that all of these things are happening in our name, it really makes a lot of us take a step back. It’s blatantly obvious that this is a reenactment [in the film] — the words are on the screen — but I was actually in the program and didn’t realize the impact that what I was doing had until I saw that final piece of paper that stated it, which you see in the film. There’s this huge denial that I think the artistry can get through like nothing else. Like speaking at a podium or watching it on television can’t.
Sonia Kennebeck: With the reenactment, the good thing for me was that we had so much information. That’s why I interviewed the families and the survivors of this specific strike. We could’ve interviewed many more. Civilian victims want to tell their story because they have been hurt so much and they want people to understand and know what’s happened to them. But I chose this [strike] because the military did this investigation, [which was] released through a Freedom of Information Act request, so it not only had the full transcript of the drone crew talking about it that we reenacted, but also it had screenshots of the real drone video and had videos of cars after the attack. Ines even found the same type of cars.
Ines Hofmann Kanna: Yeah, we even tried to find the same type of cars. It’s like okay, if we reenact it, then let’s do it and make it unassailable [where] you can’t say that’s not true. We had the testimony of the survivors, of course – they were there. They knew [they] prayed, got in the car and then they started bombing us. And we knew from various sources, so you can’t come and say oh we made that up or it’s fiction, which makes it a very strong piece of the film now.
Lisa Ling: And it’s a hard pill to swallow – that we’re fighting a war on terror with terror. How do you convey that? And in a palatable way?
Ines Hofmann Kanna: Unless you show it, you know?
Lisa Ling: And there’s still the denial. Even after that, there’s still denial of how this could be happening. Such a small percentage of our population carry the burden of knowing what’s really going on in our country’s name, and I think that unless that’s out in the open and people are discussing it, then our healthy democracy is not so healthy.
Sonia Kennebeck: It has been very encouraging because the audiences are so engaged and incredibly moved. I think we had a two-hour Q & A [last night], and it’s not just in the U.S., but really around the world too, which is important because this is really a global weapon – it’s not just the U.S., it’s European countries as well. So it has been really encouraging. We also notice we have a very diverse audience. A lot of women come to see this film because this is a film that has women in front of the camera and as a woman making films about national security and war on conflict, I think our documentation is in this field so far is not very representative because women are affected by wars. They fight wars and possibly even play a larger role than men [during wartime] because they’re the ones that keep societies and communities alive because they take care of the children and the elders, not just themselves.
Lisa Ling: What a lot of people don’t know, because in a lot of TV and movies, they have a lot of men talking about computers — it was a woman who invented the first compiler! [laughs] I think we need to take a look at the technology, but not depend on it for things that require humanity. That’s a lot of what we’re doing, I think, and this [drone program] just has to be discussed. If there’s any ask that I would have, it’s to come see the film and discuss it with your neighbors and friends, so it’s not just people like the three of us protagonists in the film carrying this burden. We all need to carry it. We all need to provide the checks and balances for democracy and I think this film is the best possible venue for something like that to happen.
“National Bird” is now open in New York at the Cinema Village and will open in Los Angeles at the Monica Film Center and in San Francisco at the Roxie Theater on November 18th. A full list of screenings and dates is here.