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Tribeca 2016: Five Questions for National Bird Director Sonia Kennebeck

National Bird

“Detached, inhuman and unreal” — that’s how Sonia Kennebeck describes the act of killing via Predator drones. An emblem of American foreign policy in the Obama era, so-called unmanned aerial vehicles allow nations to monitor and assassinate their enemies from thousands of miles away. Kennebeck interviews the operators and survivors of drone warfare in National Bird, her whistle-blowing documentary executive produced by Errol Morris and Wim Wenders. Below, Kennebeck discusses the ethical dilemmas of drone warfare, drones as a cinematic tool and how she found her remarkable subjects. The film screens this week at the Tribeca Film Festival and has been picked up by FilmRise for distribution.

Filmmaker: The film centers around the lives of three remarkable documentary subjects: Heather, Daniel, and Lisa. Can you discuss how you found them, and how you worked to gain their trust to be on camera?

Kennebeck: I always wanted National Bird to be a film about the people who are directly impacted by the drone war — the drone operators and analysts working in the secret program and the victims and survivors in the target countries. 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. I had worked sensitive projects before and hired a legal counsel during development who specializes on First Amendment rights, Frank Dehn, and also approached prominent whistleblower attorney Jesselyn Radack, who also represents Edward Snowden. That legal support turned out to be vital during the production of the film when the government tried to silence the whistleblowers.

Filmmaker: I was curious about the overhead shots throughout the film. Did you shoot them with a drone, and in general how do you feel about drones as a filmmaking tool?

Kennebeck: 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 for 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. 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 how it feels like to live under constant surveillance.

Filmmaker: Video technology gets better every day. In the film, much is made of the difficulty of the Predator drone’s murky, ambiguous images. In your opinion, do you think that clearer images in the future could result in less collateral damage, or are there more factors in play?

Kennebeck: 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 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.

Filmmaker: Much of the film focuses on a single disastrous drone strike in 2010. You were the first person to interview the survivors of this strike. Can you discuss how you prepared for such an important and emotionally sensitive series of interviews in Kabul?

Kennebeck: My team and I prepared the trip to Afghanistan far in advance to ensure the safety of our protagonists, the translators and us. We worked with excellent and knowledgeable local guides who are very respected in the communities we visited, and I trusted their judgment. 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 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.

I only interviewed the survivors of this one strike because I didn’t want others to speak about their painful experiences and end up not using their interviews. 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 wanted to tell their stories and wanted their voices to be heard by the world community.

Filmmaker: Most people who see the film will come away wondering about Daniel, given his fears of being charged under the Espionage Act. Do you have any updates you can comfortably share about how he’s doing?

Kennebeck: Unfortunately, I cannot share any information about Daniel at this time. All I can say is that we haven’t changed the ending of the film.

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