Sonia Kennebeck’s film National Bird, which was executive produced by renowned filmmakers Errol Morris and Wim Wenders, takes a risk just by making it in the first place. It tells the story of the United States drone war, from a very human perspectiveof the veterans and survivors most impacted by it, focusing on a trio of whistleblowers who risk their own security by coming forward. A longtime investigative journalist, Kennebeck certainly picked a challenging topic for her first feature-length film, but National Bird “puts forward an artful, profoundly unsettling argument against these inherently sloppy operations,” writes Michael O’Sullivan in the Washington Post. “Kennebeck may be a newcomer to feature filmmaking, but her grasp of the material is accomplished.” It is “powerful cinematic journalism,” adds the LA Times.

Kennebeck talked to us about the challenges of making a film that had to be somewhat shrouded in secrecy, of traveling to dangerous places, and of using drone cameras in a film about drone warfare.

Why did you make a film about the drone program?

I wanted to bring transparency to the U.S. drone war through the voices of people directly impacted by it — the operators and analysts working in the drone program, and the victims and survivors in the target countries.

The use of armed drones has substantially altered the way we wage war. These high-tech devices can track and kill human targets anywhere in the world, even outside of conflict areas and war zones. The operators are often based halfway across the world, in physical safety and with little knowledge of the people and places they attack. This raises a plethora of legal and ethical questions. Nonetheless, the U.S. has been using armed drones for over a decade in complete secrecy, with little oversight or accountability.

When I started my research, I wanted to make a film about this secret U.S. drone war, but unexpectedly, National Bird also became a film about the cost of whistleblowing under an administration that seems to value secrecy more than our First Amendment rights and doesn’t shy away from investigating whistleblowers and journalists.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making National Bird?

Traveling and filming in Afghanistan was the biggest challenge. The security situation in the country has deteriorated and shortly after we arrived there was a large coordinated Taliban attack on the Afghan parliament, which was close to where we stayed. We had to be very cautious during the production, but we worked with excellent and knowledgeable local guides who are well respected in the communities we visited.

How did you gain the trust of the subjects in National Bird, especially given the potential security concerns?

Time. I spent a lot of time with my protagonists. I also believe that trust has to be mutual. My characters have to trust me that I represent their stories well and I have to trust them that they are serious about being part of a documentary.

I also made sure that they all got legal representation and that our communication, including among the team members, was secure and encrypted. Reassuring the protagonists of these precautions also helped me to gain their trust.

What were some other precautions you had to take?

The whole team was very aware of the sensitivity of the subject and everyone, even our composer, knows how to encrypt emails. We encrypted our hard drives and our communication. We went to great lengths to be careful and not jeopardize the safety of our protagonists who remained our anonymous sources until the day of the film’s world premiere.

Were you also ever concerned for yourselves as filmmakers? With at least your privacy if not your security?

Yes, of course I was concerned. As a journalist and a filmmaker you worry a lot about your sources but as a private person as well I was concerned about my privacy, with all the surveillance going on. Every person should be. As we know after the Snowden revelations we are all under surveillance. Of course it makes our job as journalists and filmmakers incredibly difficult. With the technology nowadays and the surveillance, without any limitations, it makes it nearly impossible for us to protect anonymous sources or our own privacy. So it is absolutely necessary to use encryption. We as journalists have to educate ourselves about this type of technology. The intrusiveness of surveillance and the impact it has on our work as investigative journalists is of real concern and a threat to our democracy.

An Afghan survivor of a U.S. air strike with his son.
An Afghan survivor of a U.S. air strike with his son.

Drones and drone warfare is such a contentious issue. What conversations would you like people to have after they see this film?  

“It’s not just something that happens in other countries. The police in some states can already use drones for surveillance, and the question is: Will these police drones be armed next?”I want people to be more educated about drones and start a discussion about it. There has to be transparency, and we have to be better educated about the efficiency of this weapon. There are so many unanswered questions: Is it as efficient as politicians want us to believe? How many people are being killed, how many civilians, in how many countries…We need that information, so we as a society can decide if this is the kind of warfare that we want.

At our many screenings of the film we’ve had wonderful Q&As with great questions. I had one Q&A go on for nearly three hours. People let me know later that the film stays on their mind, it moves them. It made them think about this kind of warfare. They understand that it’s not just something that happens in other countries. The police in some states can already use drones for surveillance purposes, and the question is: Will these police drones be armed next?

This is also a film about whistleblowers and the role they play in a society, a democracy. That is another thing audiences are interested in and shocked by. I think the American public believes in the First Amendment and freedom of the press, and the government intimidation of whistleblowers that they see in the film is a big concern for many.

What moment or scene in the film had the most impact on you?

Going to Afghanistan was an important journey for the film and also for me personally to understand and appropriately capture the situation of families living under constant war and in fear of armed drones. The strongest moment in the film, and the most impactful scene for me to capture, was when the civilian victims told us about the airstrike on them and ended the interview with a heartfelt pledge for peace.

Could you talk more about the use of aerial cinematography to shoot National Bird?

We shot some of it with our own small video drone. In more populated areas we worked with licensed drone pilots, and in other places we used a helicopter. Our method really depended on local rules and regulations.

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, but 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 what it feels like to live under constant surveillance.

Can you now give us any updates on how the main characters in National Bird are doing? I know there are security concerns with at least one of them, but whatever you can tell us…

Heather is back at school. She went back to college after this film and now only has one year left to get her bachelor’s degree. She still has therapy, still working with a psychologist, but she’s on a very good path right now.

Lisa is also in school about to get her bachelor’s as well. She wants to go on and get her Master’s. She’s studying politics and history, and really wants to continue her path of educating people about drone warfare. And also [continuing her work] trying to bridge the gap between people in the United States and the countries targeted by drones. She’s made it her life’s mission.

(Regarding) Daniel, unfortunately, I don’t have any updates beyond what we see and know in the film…

What are your three favorite/most influential documentaries or feature films?

1. Apocalypse Now by Francis Ford Coppola is one of the best war movies ever made. I reference the film a few times in National Bird. For me, there are some parallels between the depiction of the Vietnam War trauma in Apocalypse Now and the experiences of my protagonists. It seems that while advances in technology have changed the way we wage war drastically, the trauma soldiers face still seems to remain the same.

2. Hell and Back Again by Danfung Dennis. It gives the audience a glimpse of the experience and trauma of soldiers and veterans and the challenges they face when they try to re-integrate back into society. It’s a very impactful film.

3. Dark City by Alex Proyas. I really like the different layers, the symbolism. The film plays with the audience. You’re never really sure what is reality and what is perception and illusion.

What film/project(s) are you working on next?

I am researching for a new national security film but am not ready to talk about it yet.


See also:

KERA audio interview with Sonia:

A Salon video interview

WTTW Interview: “The Human Impact of Drone Warfare”