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“More Publicity Means More Protection”: Sonia Kennebeck on National Bird

National Bird

Sonia Kennebeck’s National Bird is a humanistic look at those responsible for and affected by America’s divisive drone war program. Those working in drone warfare are thousands of miles removed from the destination of their attack, so National Bird is primarily placed in suburban America, away from the crimes at the film’s core. Through three former air force workers turned whistleblowers (and their victims), Kennebeck’s film is equally about an emotional and spatial disconnect. We do not interact with those we are affecting most – please feel free to draw your own parallels to current American politics here – and therefore the country can continue seeing out messy, inexact explosions that, in many cases, put an end to the lives of innocent bystanders. When it comes to these attacks, the film implies, the political approval is bipartisan.

As National Bird gets set to open in theaters, Kennebeck and I spoke last week (pre-presidential election) to discuss using formerly classified information as the basis for shattering reenactments, how storytellers successfully depict multiple types of war trauma, and the complexity involved in crafting a safe environment for documenting whistleblowers.

Filmmaker: In your 25 New Faces profile earlier this summer, you noted that you were an intern for NBC just a few days before 9/11 occurred. I was wondering if you could reflect on that time period and how your work (and the media) changed after the national attack took place. 

Kennebeck: It had a really big influence on my work and the type of films that I’m currently making. I was in Washington, D.C. on 9/11, working as an intern at NBC, and was at the Pentagon the day after. The smoke was still rising up. It was a very intense time and a life-altering experience for me. Being a student, I really wanted to understand more about international terrorism and to really understand the history of the instability and allegiances these wars were fought under [in Afghanistan and in the Iraq War]. I eventually received my Master’s Degree in International Politics with a focus on Security Policy, while at the same time attending college at the American University in D.C. I was working full-time, first at Johns Hopkins University and then as a freelance news producer, covering veteran and military stories. I went to Fort Hood to cover the Lynndie England Abu Ghraib torture trial, for example. It’s really been the focus of my work, to cover these types of stories. 

Filmmaker: National Bird’s three main subjects had all formerly worked for the Air Force and are, to perhaps simplify things, dealing with a particular emotional quandary: Heather with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Daniel with paranoia, and Lisa with a need to repent. Was it important for you to approach this story from three different perspectives coming from a similar place? 

Kennebeck: I think it’s important for feature-length documentaries to cover different experiences, to have multiple layers. That’s the beauty of documentary film, that you can tell different stories over an extended period of time and really get immersed in people’s lives, especially if they are open and honest. My film’s protagonists in Afghanistan, for instance, were very open in their interviews and in sharing their lives with us.

Not too long ago I spoke with the Director of the International Trauma Institute in New York City. After he saw the film, he noted that it could be used to teach people about trauma responses. Every single one of the whistleblowers in the film have a different way to deal with their trauma and each has a different type of trauma. It was important that I didn’t tell the same story of two or three different characters over and over again. There had to be diversity and we had to show the experiences of very different people. I think Heather, Daniel, and Lisa are all completely different people with different personalities, and it shows in the way they deal with their trauma. 

Filmmaker: Was there a particular character you met first? What did your research entail when you started production?

Kennebeck: I originally wanted to do a film specifically about drone warfare, and so I started with the issue and not by coming across a character randomly and building from there. I wanted to tell a story about people directly impacted by the drone war, people impacted within the United States and people impacted in one of the U.S.’ targeted countries. That was a pretty big challenge, as the veterans in the drone program all have top secret clearance. When I started my research, it was very hard to gain access to any information. There had been only one person speaking out a little bit [on the subject]

I found Heather first, about one year before she wrote the article for The Guardian. I started my research by contacting people I knew, veterans in the military community, and spending a lot of time on online forums for veterans. I came across a photograph of a young woman, basically covering up most of her face (you could only see her eyes) with a sheet of paper that read: “Not everything you hear about the drone program is true. I know what I’m talking about.” I was wondering if this woman was the same person who knew about the drone program. I went on a detective hunt to find her – the photo had been posted online by someone other than her – and I started cross-referencing Facebook and other social media platforms to see who was connected to whom. I eventually came across a small profile photo of Heather and recognized her eyes. I contacted her and said, “I saw a photograph of this person and I wanted to know if it’s you and if you know about the drone program.” She responded that she did and that she was working within it. I asked if we could meet (she had left the military by this time to go back home and stay with her family) and I drove out to meet her. In our first meeting she told me that she had lost three fellow airmen to suicide. I had also been interested in veteran suicide as an issue, and these two stories connected and intersected, that of the drone war and veteran suicide. I hadn’t heard anything about the high suicide rate in the drone program. I then met Lisa at a veteran’s conference and Daniel at an anti-war protest.  

Filmmaker: After black-and-white archival footage of a drone strike, the first original footage we see in the film is of an overhead oscillating fan, a visual motif that returns throughout the film. I was reminded of the Martin Sheen trip-out scene in Apocalypse Now.What was it about that image that spoke to you?

Kennebeck: Not everyone pays attention to that! It was really important to use everything I could to tell this story. In National Bird, I’m telling the story not just through soundbytes but through the visuals, the editing, the sound design, and the photography. Early on [in the production] I started to think about appropriate film references. I didn’t want to make a film only about drones. There are scenes [in the film] involving war trauma that are not specific to drones. The first shot of our film was actually the very first thing we shot in the entire production! The opening sequence of Apocalypse Now has Martin Sheen looking at the ceiling fan, reminding him of the war helicopters that trigger this trauma within him. The Vietnam War was the first war where people were really discussing battle fatigue, combat stress, and war trauma that later become known as PTSD. When I started speaking to Heather, I realized that although the ways we wage war have changed dramatically, the trauma [that comes as a result] has stayed the same. People who are involved in the killing [of others] can still experience very serious trauma and moral injury. That’s what I’m trying to reference in my film. 

The other reason for the recurring visual of the fan is because the drones are coming from above (similar to the helicopters) and death is coming from the sky. The sounds of the drones are very triggering for the people in these targeted countries, as they understand what that sound means. The technology has changed, but there are a lot of similarities between current and past triggers. 

Filmmaker: Even separated by thousands of miles, you connect suburban America to Afghanistan with a shared fear of surveillance. You use use these flat, eye-in-the-sky shots to pan across the ground below. We are all just unidentified specks on a map, the camera placement appears to imply. How important was it make to make that statement clear in a nonverbal manner?

Kennebeck: I hoped people would feel what it must be like to live under constant surveillance, to be watched. I think it’s less impactful if you verbalize it. People need to feel the tension, the fear and the creepiness. It was Heather’s job to watch other people and now she is the one being watched. We are turning the camera around and we’re now watching people in the United States. 

One of the audience members at a screening last week had a really good analysis. He said, “Your film starts with a bomb being dropped and then every subsequent aerial [shot] in the film prompted a sense of fear within me.” He had the visual of that bomb in his mind, and he knew that all of these devices that fly over him (even video drones, for instance) could potentially carry something that they could drop on people. They could carry a weapon, they could watch people…

Filmmaker: I wanted to ask you about the inclusion of retired general Stanley A. McChrystal in the film, shown both in new footage (giving a talk at a book signing that Lisa graciously attends) and in archival footage in which McChrystal apologizes for recent drone attacks he’s carried out. He’s both a sympathetic figure and an aloof one, someone both sincere and a company man. How did including him in this story expand the narrative scope?

Kennebeck: I actually like the fact that you can’t decide if he’s a sympathetic figure or not. He’s the commander during the attacks on the families in Afghanistan depicted in the film, and then afterwards he apologizes. I think that’s a very strong move. I strongly believe that the world is not black-and-white. I didn’t put my voice in the film (there’s no narration) because I really wanted the audience to come to a conclusion themselves. There are times where drones can be useful, such as when used for search-and-rescue missions during national disasters. They can provide overwatch for troops in combat areas. When General McChrystal talks to Lisa at the book signing (and even before that, in a public conversation on stage), he talks about the dangers of using drones, but at the end of the day there are two dimensions to them. He also notes that drones are here to stay because they’re an effective tool. To have someone with that type of experience and responsibility – he was a very experienced, high ranking commander in Afghanistan – think through it and present a very layered view is, I think, extremely important in reaching out to a larger audience. 

Filmmaker: Late in the film you provide a visual and audio reenactment of a 2010 drone attack (via information provided directly from government transcripts) that emphasize the savagery and carelessness involved in the procedure. Your film is dedicated to those murdered in the attack, and I wanted you to take us through how you recreated these events based on the information you could obtain.

Kennebeck: The thought of doing a recreation occurred when I actually found the investigation file. The investigation was ordered by General McChrystal – it was originally classified  – and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) did a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for it. They were able to get it released from being classified. It’s such a valuable resource, as it explains a number of the drone program’s problems beyond any doubt, and this is coming from within the military itself. It’s an incredible source. To my knowledge, it’s the only transcript of a drone program that has ever been released to the public. The file is 2,000 pages long, and the transcript is about 80 pages. The parts of the transcript I show in the film completely represented [its entirety]. I reenacted them verbatim. I did reenactments of the file itself as well, which also includes interviews with pretty much everyone involved: those involved in the drone crews, military personnel, the victims and the survivors. It also includes maps, screenshots of the video, and photos of the aftermath (the burned-out cars and more). We reenacted it to an [exact] detail. We have very, very similar old cars and actors that resembled the people involved. 

When I went to Afghanistan, I could have interviewed many different families from different air strikes, some that had happened just a few weeks earlier. But I chose the family represented in the files because of the supporting material; I didn’t want people to doubt the stories they were telling. The investigation even included the medical records of each of the people I interviewed in Afghanistan, and so it was a very strong case study that I could build off of. We tell the the viewer that it’s a reenactment throughout the whole scene, but we often speak to audience members afterwards who find that hard to believe, as they find it so realistic. 

Filmmaker: It’s explicitly stated in the end credits that no classified information had been shared with the filmmakers throughout the production. Were you more conscious of that fact or were the people you were interviewing? I think back to Daniel and his being served with the Espionage Act…

Kennebeck: I think it was all of us. People who have top secret clearance are very conscientious of what they can and can’t say. They get extensive training, as it takes a very long time to be given these clearances. They also feel threatened. It was always on the interviewees’ minds and it was always on my mind. I’d worked on other military and national security stories before, and I think that was one of the reasons my protagonists chose to work with me. I came with some experience and am very, very careful. I personally hired a First Amendment lawyer during the film’s development and got his advice on how to protect the protagonists. I made sure that all three had access to a media council. Our responsibility as filmmakers is to protect our sources. We couldn’t do our work without whistleblowers, and it’s really important to protect them and what they’re doing. There’s always a risk, and I discussed that with the veterans in the film. We prepared for the worst – and some very bad things happened during production – and Heather was seriously intimidated when the Air Force Office of Special Investigation came to her parents’ house and warned her not to go public. They really scared her and tried to keep her silent (and disrupt the production of the film). Not much later, Daniel was raided by the FBI in the middle of production. He contacted me and I contacted a whistleblower lawyer and we spoke with his Criminal Defense Attorney. We all decided to continue with production. This may actually be the first time that an ongoing secret espionage investigation has been captured on camera. You have to prepare for these things during production of a film covering such an important issue such as the drone war.  

Filmmaker: Wim Wenders and Errol Morris are credited on the film as executive producers. How did they get involved? 

Kennebeck: That also had to do with my wish to protect the project and the people in it. I thought very early on that having well known executive producers on board would make it both high profile and more difficult for the government to stop production. I could call Errol Morris and Wim Wenders about these concerns and make them public if we needed to. The whistleblower lawyers always said that publicity also means protection and that more publicity means more protection. I approached Wim Wenders through his assistant (I didn’t have a prior contact to either him or Errol Morris) and showed him my work-in-progress. While he was watching it, he said “whatever I can do to help you, I will do.” Being rather straightforward, I asked him if he would be my executive producer and he said yes. It was a very quick and short meeting. He was very supportive, watching the rough cut and the fine cut of the film. I had approached Errol Morris before, but Wim Wenders and I reached out to him again to come onboard. I showed Errol a rough cut and he also said right then and there, “I think this is a really important project.”

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