The quietly powerful documentary National Bird, directed by Sonia Kennebeck, reveals the story of three whistleblowers who speak about their experiences in the US drone program: Heather, a former drone imagery analyst, Daniel, a private contractor and former signals intelligence analyst, and Lisa, a former technical sergeant for the drone surveillance system. Kennebeck, who is based in New York, also traveled to Afghanistan to interview civilian victims of a drone attack and show the impact of drone warfare on people’s lives. The Malaysian-born filmmaker and investigative journalist has previously worked for CNN and ARD (German public television). Her 2013 documentary Sex: Made in Germany, co-directed with Tina Soliman, is about the sex industry in Germany, where prostitution is legal. Senses of Cinema interviewed the filmmaker when National Bird, her first feature-length documentary, screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival earlier this year. Here is an edited excerpt of that interview.
This documentary was about three years in the making. Take me through the process of getting the idea, and eventually finding the people who became the protagonists in your film.
I was interested in two issues. One was drone warfare and the other one was veterans’ suicides. I’ve done a lot of veteran stories before, so I talked to people that I know in the veterans’ community and the activists’ community. I was surfing their websites. I came across a photograph of a young woman who was holding up a sheet of paper, covering most of her face. You could only see her eyes. The paper said something like, “Not everything you hear about the drone program is true, I know what I’m talking about.”
I wondered if the person who was holding the paper knew about the drone program. I tried to contact the person [who posted the photo]. He didn’t want to tell me who this person was. So I started cross-referencing people, who was connected to who on Facebook. It took me a few weeks until I came across a profile photo of Heather on Facebook. I recognised her eyes and I contacted her. I said, “I saw this photograph and I think it’s you. Is that you, and do you know what the drone program is about?”
And she said yes. And we met in person. In my first conversation with Heather, she actually told me that she had lost three friends to suicide. Three former air men, colleagues of hers. These two issues intersected. And that’s how I started.
Later on I met Lisa at a veteran’s convention. I met Daniel at an anti-drone protest.
I really wanted to speak to the people directly impacted by drone warfare. I didn’t want to speak to journalists, experts, pundits. I wanted to speak to the people who are part of the program. Heather and Daniel are both first-time enlisted people, very young recruits.
And then [there are] my protagonists in Afghanistan. I had planned to travel to a target country, and for some reason I had been interested in Afghanistan from the beginning. Lisa actually travelled to Afghanistan before to support her friend who provides humanitarian aid and support there. So that was great that we could really intersect those stories.
How did Heather, Lisa and Daniel respond when you asked them to participate in your film?
All three of them really wanted to speak out. I just met and found them at the right time. I told them in detail what I was planning for the film. I also said my background is in journalism so I want to make a film that is balanced, that is not an activist film. I was very straightforward with them.
They all felt that they had to blow the whistle on what they had been doing, because they got into a program thinking something completely different, and then they were part of a secret environment. And what interested me is like, what caused this change? They’re all patriots. They all wanted to defend their countries and do something good. What happened within that program? What knowledge did they have? That was what interested me, what made them speak out against something that they were doing. I think they are still patriots because all of them have the goal to actually better their society and the military.
So how were you able to gain their trust? What made them agree to participate?
Time [laughs]. Definitely time. I spent a lot of time with my protagonists.
I actually think trust is also always on both sides. Because yes, they have to trust me that I represent their stories well, but I also have to trust them that they are serious about it. It’s a very expensive endeavor to make a documentary. It takes a lot of time. A lot of persistence and so on. It takes years. So for me it was important to that they were serious and they understood what we were trying to do here.
For a film like this, you can’t just do one interview. I’m doing them multiple times. We talked a lot about certain things that we wanted to get across, for example, what Lisa was working on. She was working on this huge surveillance system that is a very essential part of the drone program, but it’s so hard to describe what it does.
They all had top secret clearances, and they have been told over and over again in the military, “You cannot possibly talk to anyone about this.”
I say in the end credits no person that’s filmed disclosed classified information to the filmmakers. So you can be a whistleblower and expose wrongdoings without crossing that line. And, you know, that’s why it’s just as important to experience it in this film as well. As a whistleblower, you expose fraud and abuse, government wrongdoings. But you can do it within the boundaries without revealing classified information.
In a lot of newspaper articles, you have anonymous sources speak, but in my film they are going on the record. They’re showing their faces. They are also giving us a lot of access to their personal lives and their stories. So it was most important that they are protected, that’s why I hired a lawyer, Frank Dehn [an expert in First Amendment law]. I actually contacted [whistleblower attorney] Jesselyn Radack during the production because I wanted my protagonists to have their own legal counsel.
What did you discuss with your lawyer?
I just wanted to be very, very careful and cautious. I have a very small team: my producer, Ines Hoffman Kanna, my director of photography, Torsten Lapp, and then the editor, Maxine Goedicke. I also consider Insa Rudolph, the composer, part of the core team. And everyone, including the composer, knows how to encrypt emails.
I’m really, really proud that everyone on the team was very aware of the sensitivity. It was a do-not-publicise project throughout production. And we encrypted hard drives. My DP and I never transported any material across borders. We went to great lengths to be careful.
It made production very, very difficult because I never had material at my place [at home], so I couldn’t really screen my material. It wasn’t a regular production. My first question to my lawyer was: Where are the risks for my protagonists? What can happen? How do we walk the line that they are safe? And worst-case scenarios, you know, like subpoenas and so on. We discussed all of that. It was good to have a very experienced lawyer. He worked on Citizenfour (Laura Poitras, 2014).
It was very clear for everyone involved that there is a risk. What all of us have been doing, including the whistleblowers, is to minimise that risk. I think everyone in my film is very, very educated and informed about this administration’s coming after whistleblowers and even pressuring journalists.
You have amazing aerial footage of drones looking down at neighborhoods and city streets, which really conveys the idea of surveillance. You can’t hide. When did you decide you wanted to shoot your own drone footage?
I decided that pretty early on because I thought just the drones themselves – even without the weaponry – are just so intrusive to people’s privacy. People in countries like Afghanistan are living under constant threat. Kids know what drones are and they are afraid of the sky.
When we started there weren’t really any rules or regulations for video drones. That changed during production so at some point we started filming with our own drone when it was still allowed in certain areas, but in others where it was more populated or more difficult, we hired licensed drone pilots.
For some of the shots we used a helicopter with a very specific kind of a rig on it, a mount that allowed us to film at a 90-degree angle to the ground. It was important for me to have people understand how it must feel like to live under surveillance. This footage is very intrusive. A lot of people are completely unaware of it, right? They don’t even look up. We chose neighborhoods that are very normal. When my family first saw this one shot of the cookie-cutter community in the poster, their first reaction was, oh, we could live there, this looks like our house. This could be us! And I thought, okay, we got it.
I’ve read that you felt that having a big name attached to the film would give you additional protection.
The lawyer for my protagonists, Jesselyn Radack, always said that more publicity means more protection. Because at this point it probably would be very difficult for the government to intimidate my subjects further because we’ve been getting a lot of attention for the film. I thought – even during the production – it would be good to have a big name attached, because it is more difficult to go after a big-name filmmaker – than after a very small indie production.
So I contacted Wim Wenders’ assistant during the development and asked for an appointment. I didn’t know Wim Wenders or Errol Morris prior to this project. I probably waited four or five months to get this appointment. We met for half an hour or so. I showed him my work in progress, and some material I had already filmed with Heather. While he was watching it, he said, whatever I can do to help you, I will.
Right then and there, I said, “Do you want to be my executive producer?” And he said, “Yes.” Then we approached Errol Morris together, and Errol Morris was very, very interested in the subject matter. He does his own very political films.
Both of them gave feedback on my rough cuts. I think Wim Wenders screened two rough cuts, Errol Morris screened one rough cut, gave me notes. And then they were also there when I had questions. It’s great to have these two experienced filmmakers that I could approach. They were very responsive. I’d write them emails; they’d get back to me and give me feedback. It was really helpful. It also helped to get more attention for the film.
Tell me about your visual approach to the film.
For me, in the visual approach, it was about turning around the lens, too. A lot of the film takes place in the US. The protagonists, their job was to watch people in other countries. And one of the themes in our cinematography, was to watch the protagonists in their day-to-day lives.
So we have multiple shots where my DP is watching Heather through a window. There is always this kind of natural framing around a window that reminded us of the drone videos where you actually watch on a computer monitor. We used the same size of the frame, too, when we were using these drone videos.
My DP put a lot of thought into the framing. I think he did a very, very good job with Daniel’s story to show his isolation. Daniel is basically in his room all the time, listening to Democracy Now, and sitting at a computer. It’s this psychological impact of being under investigation, and being under surveillance, is really disturbing him.
In Afghanistan, there is this fear of the sky, and it might be drones but it also might be helicopters. And we saw it at the interviews. My DP captured one of the helicopters flying over, and you see how the kid is holding his ears; a woman is shivering and shaking. Everyone we interviewed is so traumatised and afraid. And it is symbolised through the sound, you know, the drone – the helicopters have a sound that we use a lot in our sound design that comes with the score of my composer. We actually included a real sound of a drone in some of my composer’s compositions, and it is a sound that’s coming from the sky.
We really put a lot of thought in the whole visualisation, the context, and the sound design. With the sound design, the silence, and the sounds of the helicopters, and so on, we tried to transfer an emotion, not just information, but a feeling in the film. I hope certain repetitive sounds and repetitive images will, on a subconscious level maybe make the audience, especially in the US and the Western world, have a little glimpse of how it is like to live under constant surveillance, and in a country where you have to be afraid of the sky.
What do you hope people come away with after they see the film?
First and foremost, I really want people to think about it. I want them to feel something; to come away with emotion, and to have empathy with the people in the film, both the protagonists in the US and the protagonists in Afghanistan.
And really to talk to their peers and discuss the issue of drone warfare. Because I really think there hasn’t been enough discussion in the public. Many people are not realising that this is the weapon of choice for the US right now, and for the Obama Administration.