“National Bird,” Sonia Kennebeck’s Revelatory Exposé Flies High

Afghan victims of a U.S. drone strike.
Afghan victims of a U.S. drone strike.

By Danny Peary


National Bird fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor. Meanwhile, Sonia Kennebeck’s enlightening documentary about drone warfare whistleblowers premiered at the Cinema Village (12th Street off University) in Manhattan since Veterans Day and will expand this coming Friday, the 18th, to theaters in Los Angeles, San Francisco, the D.C. area, Chicago, Houston, Phoenix, and other cities nationwide. Don’t miss it! If you are displeased with how our beloved out-going president monitored our controversial drone program, then I’m sure you’ll be even more concerned when a trigger-happy neophyte takes office January 20. The worry is not only about the collateral damage our strikes do overseas in the war against terrorism but also, as this film emphasizes, the mental anguish suffered by our military at home who are responsible for those long-distance strikes. Executive produced by Wim Wenders and Errol Morris, National Bird introduces us to three whistleblowers who once had top-secret clearance: Heather, a former Drone Imagery Analyst who was recruited by the Air Force when she was eighteen and participated in her first deadly drone strike when she was just twenty; Daniel, who was homeless when enlisted by the Airforce and became a Signals Intelligence Analyst who tracked down high-value targets for drone attacks in Afghanistan; and Lisa, a former Technical Sergeant on Drone Surveillance System whose computer skills led to her working on the Distributed Ground System (DGS), a weapons system that makes use of drones to collect vast amounts of data and track down targets. Today, all three suffer guilt, anxiety, and paranoia that the government will come after them for telling the public what they know. Please watch the trailer: https://www.google.com/#q=national+bird+trailer Kennebeck’s powerful documentary was well-received at the Tribeca Film Festival in April. That’s when I had the opportunity to speak to the talented and deeply committed director.

Sonia Kennebeck
Sonia Kennebeck

Danny Peary: National Bird is certainly timely.

Sonia Kennebeck: I didn’t expect that there would be so much reporting about drones now. People are calling it a zeitgeist thing.

DP: You’re the rare American filmmaker from Malaysia.

SK: My mother is Malay-Chinese and my father is German. He grew up on a dairy farm in Germany and came to Malaysia as a foreign aid worker. My parents met and married in Malaysia and I was born there. My mother is one of 15 children, so I still have a lot of family in Malaysia. I came to Washington, D.C. on a one-year scholarship for undergrad studies and arrived just before 9/11. I have friends who survived the attacks in New York. After my scholarship year, I decided to stay in D.C. and pursue a Master’s degree in International Politics to understand more about terrorism and the wars that followed.

DP: I assume your father influenced you in terms of devoting your career to human rights issues.


SK: Very much so. I’ve been in investigative journalism for pretty much my whole career. The number of women, and particularly women of color, in this field is very low. There’s a fantastic organization founded by Stanley Nelson called Firelight Media, and it supports filmmakers of color. I’m a fellow and two other fellows have films here at Tribeca, one is Deborah Esquenazi, the director of Southwest of Salem, and the other is Cecilia Aldarondo, the director of Memories of a Penitent Heart. It’s a great support community. We meet often. Having experienced subtle racism and discrimination and people remarking about our ethnicity and where we’re from, there’s this personal connection we have to human rights and social issue stories. It’s so imperative to make films about our community because we have access. There’s no barrier, so I think it’s really important to support filmmakers from diverse communities.

DP: When did you start considering yourself a filmmaker?

SK: I earned my Master’s at American University in International Affairs, and International Politics was my concentration. I didn’t go to film school. Actually no one on my National Bird team went to film school. I worked full time while studying full time. I wouldn’t recommend that to anyone, but I had to pay for school. I actually worked as a freelance producer for ARD German public television in D.C.–and later for CNN in New York. I covered a lot of military stories on subjects such as PTSD, deserters, torture at Abu Ghraib; I interviewed Ethan McCord and did a story about Chelsea Manning and the CollateralMurder video. I started very early, over ten years ago, working with veterans and traumatized veterans. That’s how I made my contacts within the veterans’ community.

DP: Why did you decide to make a film about drones as your first feature?

SK: I come from television, so I’ve done shorter documentaries, 30 minutes, 45 minutes, 60 minutes. I like the short-form documentary but I understood from the beginning that this subject matter is too large for a short. My goal when I set out was not to speak to experts or pundits but to speak to people who were directly impacted–people from within the military and people in targeted countries—and that is a big project in itself.

DP: When did the drone program actually start? Under Obama?

SK: It started, I believe, in the fall of 2001 or early 2002. There was an article in The Atlantic that covered the first drone strike. The first reported one at least. While Obama is certainly the president who has increased the use of combat drones, it goes way back. Now the government announced that they want to increase the drone program by fifty percent. It’s definitely going to be the weapon of the future, as well.

DP: You mentioned the secrecy around the drone program. We know it exists but not much more about it other than what we see on the news following a strike of consequence. Is what we do not know about drones the result of our government or military suppressing information? Or is it just that we’re naive about it because we’re too lazy to read about it?

SK: When I started the film three years ago, there was incredibly little information out. It was deliberately secret. As of three years ago, there had been only one single whistleblower who was speaking out. It has really progressed. And every time some whistleblower or some article comes out and brings out information, even if it’s quoting anonymous sources, there seems to be a pattern of the government reacting and releasing more information. The issue of drones is so strong now. And after The Guardian article at the end of 2013, the responses have been overwhelming. People are interested in PTSD in the drone program and want to encourage veterans to get help. The public wants to know what is being done.

DP: What would a whistleblower reveal?

SK: Inaccuracy is the main thing. That’s why the three protagonists in my film are speaking out. I’m so immersed in the issue that I assume that people know what drones are but in the feedback I got after screenings, I find that people are stunned by what’s in the film. Some told me they didn’t even know what drones are and others didn’t really understand how they work.

DP: People also don’t know that a drone strike in the Middle East or Asia can be initiated by pilots in Arizona.

SK: Or New Mexico or Nevada. They think everything takes place overseas. When I started my first conversations, even with broadcasters, three years ago, I didn’t realize that the general public, because the program is so secret, doesn’t know a lot about the drone program. I knew I’d have to explain a lot and it would have to have an educational component. I see the first part of the film as being educational and bringing transparency to the program. One of my favorite films is Apocalypse Now, which is set during the Vietnam War, and the connection I wanted to draw is that the type of warfare there is and technology used have changed but the moral and psychological injuries are the same.

DP: Was it your plan to make a movie with three whistleblowers?

SK: When I started the project, I wasn’t sure if it should be about drones or veteran suicide and these two issues kind of intersected for me. It wasn’t my plan to have three whistleblowers, but I was looking for people on the inside. I wanted a human story that the general audience could relate to.

DP: Jesselyn Radack is featured prominently in your film. As you say in your press notes, she’s the most prominent attorney for whistleblowers, the person who represented Edward Snowden, so I guessed she gave you access to Heather, Lisa, and Daniel.

SK: No. I met Heather first. A lot of people assume that I found Heather after she wrote the drone article in The Guardian that we talk about in the film, but I met her about three quarters of a year before it was published, when I was doing research. I always point out that I’m an investigative journalist because the research is the hardest part for a film like this. I was reading everything from articles that were out to congressional reports and declassified military investigations. I also was talking to activists and veterans I knew and was surfing on their websites. I came across a photograph of a woman holding up a sheet of paper that said something along the lines of “Not everything you hear about the drone program is true. I know what I’m talking about.” All you could see were her eyes because the rest of her face was covered. It was posted by an activist and he said he didn’t know who the woman was. I was really curious if the person holding up this sign was the same person who wrote that quote. Eventually I saw a Facebook photo of Heather and I recognized her eyes. So I contacted her and asked, “Is this you in this photo? Do you actually know about drones or were you just holding that up for someone else?” She said, “Yes, that’s me. I worked in a drone program.” I said, “Can we meet?”

DP: And she trusted you over the phone? She seemed pretty suspicious.

SK: They all are. All three of my protagonists had top secret clearance and were told over and over again that they couldn’t reveal classified information–which they don’t do in the film. But there is an inherent fear in the program that you can’t even talk about material that isn’t classified, or tell anyone if something is bothering you. I met Heather and she said that she lost three fellow airmen to suicide. Later, when The Guardian article happened, I put her in touch with Jesselyn. The same with the other two.

DP: So you actually put all three of them in touch with Jesselyn, not the other way around?

SK: Yes. I have my own legal counsel for the project, an entertainment lawyer who specializes in First Amendment rights, but I wanted my protagonists to have their own legal representation.

DP: Did you know you’d have financial backing when you met Heather? That you were going to be able to make a movie?

SK: I started and self-funded, which has been difficult because I’m from a working-class background. In my immediate and extended family, I’m the only one in a creative profession. So I had to use my retirement savings. I told my idea to my Director of Photography, Torsten Lapp, with whom I’d worked for over ten years, and he thought it was really important. I wanted us to start filming with Heather as soon as possible because she had just left the military and I knew it was important to capture her then. The timing in the film is completely accurate. So the day she’s writing the article we filmed her and we filmed her the day it was published, when she goes to the bookstore and is crying and doubting herself. The timeline is real. I really think that in the film you see that she experiences a really strong change and progression and also a healing.

DP: You see it right at the end. Until then, she has been increasingly paranoid and all of a sudden someone who could dismiss her is instead kind and helpful to her. It’s great for her that someone understands what she is going through, that there are people who were in the drone program who are suffering from tremendous guilt and are even suicidal.

SK: That meant a lot. I think it’s going to be really encouraging for people in similar situations to her. She’s been contacted by fellow airmen and other veterans who have said they’re going through the same thing. We really hope that this film will encourage people to get help because people from the program are committing suicide. That’s the reason Heather participated in my movie.

DP: Do they commit suicide at a higher rate than people who have been in combat?

SK: I wish there were more numbers. I think the military should do studies on that because it’s important to know in order to help. People in combat go through tremendous trauma and have horrible psychological injuries. No one is saying that people in the drone program suffer more than those in combat, but my three protagonists say they can have PTSD as well, even if in a different way.

DP: Heather is a young, attractive woman, who you wouldn’t necessarily picture as someone in the drone program, but someone enjoying life. You wouldn’t expect Lisa and Daniel to be prime candidates either. Daniel in fact is a wild card.

SK: I noticed that they only recruit very smart people. Heather was recruited at eighteen and flew her first mission at twenty. She’s mature beyond her age because she’s had these experiences. She’s very reflective and I think she has in a way matured so quickly because she was in this position where she had to make this call. It was important to me to have her in the film. In movies you see military guys but many women are imagery analysts because that job requires you to pay attention to detail and be a very good multitasker. Heather was very good at her job. To make the call that a person on the ground is a terrorist and not a civilian and leads to their deaths carries so much responsibility, especially for a person who’s eighteen to twenty five. That’s what Heather struggles with–the doubt. You’re not informed who you killed or how many people you killed, or if you killed civilians or not. You live with this constant doubt and these images in your head.

DP: Lisa talks about thinking she’d be on the right side of his history when she was recruited. She became disappointed in her own country.

SK: Heather says something similar. She wanted to serve her country, which she thought would be like a big brother and help everyone out. All three went in with that kind of idealism. They were all patriots who wanted to do something good for their country. Terrorism is a real problem and they wanted to fight it. A reason I wanted to do this film is I was curious about how someone who wanted to go into this program would be so changed by it that they feel a need now to speak against it. What did they experience that made them change so much? Something on the inside doesn’t match up with the advertising of it.

DP: These three people you got to know really well were recruited and had all these high hopes of doing good at the time. Could you have connected with them at that point, before they had evolved into whistleblowers? Would they have been comfortable talking with you?

SK: I think I could have connected with them. I spent a lot of time with all three of them. It took a long time to build up trust just because the program is so secretive. This is not a good time for whistleblowers. I’ve been asked by a lot of investigative journalists, “How did you do that?” It’s been hard for even print journalists to interview whistleblowers. We took our time and the trust was from both sides. They had to trust me with their stories and I had to know they were serious about it. It’s a big investment to do a film and follow a person.

DP: For some films, directors will interview five people and get rid of two. You took a chance that Heather, Lisa, and Daniel would come through for you.

SK: Interviews bring up so much emotion and traumatize people and it’s often unexpected. I ask questions that family members may not even ask. And Torsten Lapp is very experienced shooting stories about trauma as well. Torsten’s main work has been on documentaries with traumatized people and he’s just so respectful and so sensitive. When I do an interview like that, I make sure the people that I interview have a support network and that they’re not by themselves after that.

DP: You make them feel comfortable and safe.

SK: That’s why it was important to me that they had their own lawyers. This was a do-not-publicize project.

DP: Did anyone in the government ever approach you?

SK: They never approached me. What I think they did was worse. They intimidated my protagonists.

DP: Because of the movie?

SK: We don’t know. That’s the thing about these espionage investigations. You don’t know. We don’t know if the investigation is still going on.

DP: Were Heather and Lisa worried about being tried under the Espionage Act as much as Daniel was?

SK: I think all of them were insecure and kind of concerned about backlash.

DP: Daniel in particular seems concerned about people coming after him.

SK: Heather as well. She and another whistleblower were approached by the Office for Special Investigations of the Air Force and the FBI as well. They contacted two of Jesselyn’s clients. At first they were told they were on some terrorist kill list and when Jesselyn contacted the OSI and the FBI and said, “What type of kill list?” They were told, “It’s not really a kill list. They’ve been showing up in some internet searches.” They were intimidating them, but Jesselyn knows who to ask and what questions to ask. Eventually they said that there was no threat, and Jesselyn came to the conclusion that this was a ruse to silence the whistleblowers. But it really scared people. It’s obvious they were intimidating Heather. It seemed to us that they were trying to interfere with the film.

DP: But you were never approached yourself?

SK: No. My lawyer said I should expect that, but they are more careful about approaching journalists. I have contacts. I know exactly who to call. I think I’m safe, but I’ve never been concerned about my safety. My main concern was about my protagonists. You can see in the film, for instance, that Lisa is a very private person so I wanted to make sure she could just live her life without fear of reprisals. That’s why I didn’t use the last names of the three protagonists in the credits, although of course Heather’s name is out there because she wrote the op-ed. I am so grateful that Wim Wenders and Errol Morris agreed to be executive producers after I showed them the film because their names give the film more legitimacy and that adds protection to my protagonists.

DP: Is Obama the villain of the film?

SK: Is that the impression you get?

DP: He’s kind of the face of the drone program.

SK: It is, in a way, his legacy. But I would never describe him as a villain. I don’t think a documentary should have a villain. We are recording history here. I’ve worked on a lot on controversial issues and I’ve seen that it’s never black and white. Reality is full of shades of gray.

DP: Why do you think Obama has been so in favor of drones?

SK: As Daniel says in the film, it’s such an easy type of warfare. By putting ground troops into a war, you get a lot more resistance from the public than by having people sit in complete safety somewhere in Nevada and fight a war overseas. At our Q&As, Lisa has been pointing out–and I think she’s quoting General Hayden [the former Director of the National Security Agency]–that you don’t lose political capital because you’re not putting your own forces in physical harm’s way in another country. The reason I included parts of Obama’s National Defense University drone speech is that I thought it was important to allow him to explain why he’s using drones and to really show his point of view. He does explain that they go after imminent threats and not to punish individuals.

DP: But, in the film, you don’t include people in the drone program who don’t see issues with it. I’m fine with that: if you don’t think there is merit to the opinion of the other side, maybe you shouldn’t include it.

SK: I don’t see it as the other side. For me as a journalist, it’s important to present all sides. I told my protagonists from the beginning, “I’m not an activist. I’m a journalist. I’m not putting my own voice in because I don’t want to tell the audience what to think.” I wanted to make a film that explains, educates, and brings transparency to the drone program and I want people to come out discussing it. The protagonists, like Daniel, say in the film that some people in the anti-drone community get it wrong. General McChrystal isn’t necessarily a proponent of drones but says they’re not moral or immoral, but they’re here to stay and need to be explained. They have been doing good stuff as well with drones–like search and rescue missions. I think it’s multi-layered. In the Air Force commercial we show there is a very clear celebration of the drone program and then we have Obama with his speeches explaining why he’s using drones. So, I wanted to show that there has been this public narrative, but the people we haven’t been hearing from are from the inside, the people who have worked in the program. My goal was to give them a voice. I think we are raising a lot of issues that have not been discussed yet, like the PTSD and need for help.

DP: To make it clear: Obama is not being mislead and knows exactly what’s happening in terms of collateral damage?

SK: That’s an interesting question. There’s a point in the film where Heather asks, “Do politicians know what’s going on in their own war?” My protagonists have wondered if all the information was really passed on to them, and whether the higher-ups really were fully aware of what was going on, especially after the politicians spoke. I think that transparency in this type of war is important. Why does this program have to be so secret? To me it doesn’t make any sense.

DP: I do like Obama except for two policies that seem anathema to how he comes across: his deporting so many undocumented immigrants and his drone policy. My gripe is that Obama wouldn’t order a drone strike inside America. If some terrorist runs into a building in America, there won’t be a drone attack that destroys that building just to kill him because many American civilians would be collateral damage. So, it’s demeaning to Afghans and Iraqis, whose citizens are allowed to be killed. That’s the hypocrisy of the program. We care to a certain degree about the loss of lives, but drone strikes are acceptable because no Americans are being killed. If you can’t do it here, you shouldn’t be able to do it there.

SK: I’ve actually never thought about it this way. Heather talks about how when you drop a bomb on a building, how do you really know who’s inside? In many of these countries, women don’t even leave the house. You may hover over a house for days and you may not see a woman leave the house but that doesn’t mean there is no one inside–because in some more conservative families, the women may not leave the house for days. So how do you really know who you’re killing and how many people you’re killing? Lisa’s soundbite is so good when she says, “Do we go down and ask [a potential target] for a driver’s license?” They’ve announced they’ve killed the person they’ve been looking for multiple times. How do you kill someone multiple times? That means the people killed were not the targeted people. There seems to be a lack of information and certainty.

DP: I read an article that says the Air Force contends that fewer than seventeen percent of drone pilots express cynicism about people having bad mental health after being in the program. And seventy percent of them had been in combat prior to becoming drone operators.

SK: If it’s around seventeen percent, I’d say that’s actually a very high number. Jesselyn says that the official statistics can’t be trusted. We have definitely seen in the past that the government has released numbers that have turned out to be false or underestimated. For instance, for a very long time the government claimed civilian casualties were in the single digits or low double digits, but now they’ve changed that.

DP: Is the military going to increase the drone program by fifty percent because it successful or because it hasn’t been successful?

SK: I would think that based on what you can read from politicians statements, that they do consider it a success, and that’s why they are expanding it. I think the question has been raised, especially by my protagonists, “are you really fighting terrorism if you have so much collateral damage?” There really is a lot of collateral damage. When I went to Afghanistan and I was researching strikes, it was not hard to find survivors. There are many strikes that go wrong and whole civilian families are being killed, so there are people who want to talk. I actually could have interviewed the survivors of five other, more recent strikes but I decided not to put them through the pain of talking about their trauma and not end up using it. I focused on this one strike because I had the transcript of the military investigation and the medical records. This strike is well documented. It’s hard to prove that people are who they say they are. How do you get paperwork in a war zone? In this case, I have medical records–anonymous of course but I can see by the age and the description of the person, who my interviewees are and the injuries they had. I wanted to make sure there was no room for criticism.

DP: That part of the film is uncomfortable to watch. How was it for you to film that?

SK: Difficult. Torsten had been to Afghanistan twice before, but it was my first time. Torsten did tremendous work in Afghanistan because the circumstances of filming were very, very hard. We went during the summer last year and there was one of the largest coordinated Taliban attacks in Kabul very close to us. It was over a hundred degrees. We couldn’t drink any water. And it was Ramadan. Getting to know the victims and survivors really impacted us. We spent time with them and learned about their backgrounds, their hopes and dreams prior to the attack, their situations now. The woman who is in the film with her children lost her husband, and not having a husband in rural Afghanistan means you can’t go out and work to provide for your family. At least not in the rural area where she lives. So she’s homeless with her family and goes between her father’s house and her sister’s house. Also, in a place like that, to lose a limb means so much more than in our society. It’s not only about surviving the strike.

DP: I bet you were struck by the line, “God took her from us.” It wasn’t, “America took her from us.”

SK: Oh, yeah. It still does every time I watch it. It just shows how devoted and religious the people are. It also shows that they are so forgiving and so accepting. What was very touching for all of us–and Lisa as well–was that there was no hate or anger whatsoever. The sound bites that I use say, “This has happened to us but all we want is that you stop. It shouldn’t happen to other civilians.” There’s no hate or anger but a plea for peace. That’s not what some people would expect.

DP: Did you make up the dialogue between the drone operatives during the screwed-up operation you include in the film that killed many innocent people, or was it real?

SK: That was real. This particular strike, on February 21, 2010, was investigated by the military. General McChrystal ordered an investigation. A few years later, the ACLU and the Los Angeles Times did a Freedom of Information Act request and the whole file was released. It’s around two thousand pages long, and while some parts are redacted, there is still a lot of information, for example interviews with the responsible military personnel, with the victims, their medical records, and an eighty-page transcript of the drone crew radio traffic. That, to my knowledge, was the first and only time such a transcript has been released. I went through it and picked out essential parts and had actors read them verbatim. They are completely representative, taken from hours and hours of surveillance when the crew was completely trigger happy. In an interview with an officer, he said they had a Top Gun mentality and you can read that throughout the transcript. Some of the quotes I couldn’t use because they used unfamiliar military words and acronyms. One of them is SQUIRTERS, which means people running away when you have a hit. So they say many times, “I hope we at least get one of the SQUIRTERS.” To think they want to hunt down and kill someone who’s fleeing is very disturbing.

DP: The imagery we see on the screen is little dots moving around. The drone operatives have no way of determining the identities of those people.

SK: That whole scene is a reenactment based on the transcript and the investigation file that includes photographs, screenshots of the real drone footage, maps, and descriptions of the incident by operatives and survivors. We went through the whole file and recreated that and tried to bring clarity in a way that matches other aerial surveillance footage that we found, of which my protagonists have told me, “That’s what it looks like.” When you see Eye in the Sky, The Bourne Identity, or Homeland, the footage of people and activity on the ground are always so crystal clear, but my protagonists and all the drone whistleblowers I’ve spoken to all say that’s not how it looks. There seems to be a reduction of quality with bandwidth because there are so many drones in the sky.

In the film, we have these surveillance videos that are framed by a black frame. We’re actually watching Heather and her family from the outside and it has a natural black frame because it’s dark outside and we are looking inside through a window. We scaled all the aerials to that one window. We are watching Heather while she is watching other people. Here’s the thing about civilians and voyeurism. Drones are not only about killing. There’s a whole system of collecting data. People see the unmanned plane but what about all this information that’s being sucked up and used? What about this intrusion on privacy? We are being watched.

DP: Have you had a good reaction to National Bird at the Tribeca Film Festival?

SK: Very much so. Heather is in school taking exams, but Lisa has been doing all the Q&A’s with me and she says it has been really amazing because a lot of people have been walking up to her and thanking her. Especially people who come from regions that have experienced our drone strikes. They have been thanking us for showing both sides. I asked Lisa yesterday, “Have you heard anything negative?” And she said, “Nothing.” People are definitely ready for this movie.

*** Premiering at Doc NYC on Tuesday November 15 at 5:30 at Cinepolis Chelsea at 260 West 23rd Street near 8th Avenue is Robin Lung’s illuminating “Finding Kukan.” It’s about a fascinating Chinese-American, Ling Ling-Li, a lost-in-history filmmaker who was the uncredited driving force behind the first documentary to win an Academy Award. Watch for my interview with the director who is determined to give the long-lost picture and this pioneer female filmmaker and political activist their due.

I want to remind you that Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle” is playing at the Lincoln Plaza and Angelika in Manhattan. My interview with star Isabelle Huppert: