Drones are fun, right? They go where you can’t when you want to take some awesome footage to load up to Facebook, they even deliver pizzas thanks to the lovely people at Dominos! Well love 'em or hate 'em, they're here to stay. And as well as being a pretty cool toy (if you’re that way inclined) they can do some serious stuff. They serve a serious purpose in the form of military drones, which can eliminate enemy threats without placing boots on a battlefield, and with minimal fallout. Or so we’re told.
You’ll find a very different take on drones in tonight’s documentary, NATIONAL BIRD - a sinister one, as recounted by people who know them well. Using the testimony of three courageous whistleblowers who worked on the US drone programme, this documentary uncovers some disturbing truths about modern American warfare, and doesn’t make for easy viewing.
The film follows the dramatic journey of the three aforementioned courageous people who are determined to break the silence around one of the most controversial current affairs issues of our time: the secret U.S. drone war. Plagued by guilt over participating in the killing of faceless people in foreign countries, the three have decided to speak out publicly… and despite the possible consequences.
Directed by Sonia Kennebeck and executive-produced by Wim Wenders, NATIONAL BIRD carefully weaves together the stories of Lisa, Daniel and Heather, and it makes for affecting viewing. Heather, a former drone imagery analyst, suffers from chronic PTSD after watching remote video of people carrying away the body parts of loved ones. Daniel, a former signals intelligence analyst turned political activist, chooses his words carefully to protect himself from prosecution, but in the process learns that the US government is in fact investigating him under the Espionage Act. Lastly Lisa, a former tech sergeant on a drone surveillance system, is shown returning to Afghanistan to meet civilians victimised by U.S. strikes in truly incredible footage.
We travel to meet the maimed survivors of a mistaken drone strike on unarmed civilians in February 2010, which killed 23 people. As they describe what happened when they were attacked we hear the words of the drone operatives at work at the time, re-enacted from a transcript of the event. The juxtaposition of their almost gleefully casual attitude and raw footage of the likes of dead bodies of children being returned to their families makes the blood boil. Lisa has made a point of visiting countries her unit once surveyed from above looking for targets with drones, wanting to see for herself just what happens to those affected by a strike that was initiated a world away.
The power of the film is down to the subjects and to the incredible work of Sonia Kennebeck, a super talented independent documentary filmmaker and investigative journalist who has worked for CNN and ARD German public television's highest-rated current affairs program, Panorama. She lives in Washington, D.C., where she runs her own production company Ten Forward Films and makes films about international politics and human rights, and has clearly done her research well. She artfully weaves in drone footage from an innocent American street to really push the point home that strikes can be easily applied to any location, and by any government.
Kennebeck also cleverly juxtaposes then-POTUS Barack Obama’s speeches about drones – in which he claims that they are able to take out insurgents without harming those around them – with the testimonies of those who know that this is untrue. By examining the tales of three very broken individuals, National Bird shows that war will always be hell, even for those who aren't on the battleground.
Amazingly, under the US 1917 Espionage Act, the film and the three whistleblowers are severely restricted in what they can say, but its images haunt the audience and bring a faraway issue close to home. In the words of one reviewer, NATIONAL BIRD shows us the personal cost of impersonal killing.
NATIONAL BIRD premieres Thursday 2nd March 8.30pm on Rialto Channel