‘National Bird’ Gives New Perspective on America’s Drone War
Among the eeriest scenes in “National Bird,” a documentary which tracks the fallout of drone warfare from the point of view of American whistleblowers and Afghan victims, is the languid aerial footage of U.S. suburbs, sports fields and skyscrapers.
“Imagine if this was happening to us,” Lisa, one of the film’s protagonists, says in a voice-over. Would parents still allow kids out to play, she asks, “if they didn’t know if today is the day that something is going to fall out of the sky and kill them?”
Directed by Sonia Kennebeck and co-produced by Wim Wenders and Errol Morris, “National Bird” deconstructs America’s drone wars, reversing the devices’ all-seeing stare on to the men and women who operate them and the country that has embraced them.
“I wanted to turn the camera around,” Kennebeck told The Associated Press. “I wanted to have the audience think about the implications of drones that can fly everywhere and, as Lisa says in the film, can shoot everywhere.”
The documentary — being shown out of competition at the Berlin Film Festival — was a challenge. A trip to Afghanistan had to be kept “in and out” due to safety concerns. One of the whistleblowers, Heather, was warned by the government to keep a low profile because she was on a hit-list. The third, Daniel, had his house raided midway through the filming as part of an espionage investigation. Kennebeck said the first money she got went toward hiring a lawyer.
“It’s hard to put a number of hours” to the amount of time spent discussing legal issues, she said.
Like the Edward Snowden documentary “Citizenfour,” a film with which “National Bird” shares a protagonist (whistleblower defense attorney Jesselyn Radack), a funder (German public broadcaster NDR) and a legal adviser, “National Bird” drew pointed questions over a lack of balance. Drone warfare’s military successes hardly merit a mention. There’s a passing reference to the machines’ peacetime uses — crop-dusting, disaster relief — but viewers might otherwise come away with the idea that America deploys unmanned aircraft for the sole purpose of blowing up funeral and wedding parties.
Radack, interviewed alongside Kennebeck following a press screening Saturday, said she was frustrated by criticisms to the effect of “you didn’t get the voice of the other side.”
“I thought Sonia’s film was balanced but the voice of the other side you can read on the front page of every newspaper every single day,” Radack said. “And when you do get the voice of the other side … we have seen over and over again that those voices have completely lied.”
The film may lack nuance, but “National Bird” is a powerful antidote to those who argue that drone warfare is an antiseptic way of killing.
Another striking scene from the film is the reconstruction — based on a radio transcript — of a 2010 drone attack in Afghanistan. The machine’s operators are heard blowing off warnings that the convoy they are targeting is carrying children. But when the convoy is blasted, they immediately spot something wrong.
“What are those?” asks one. “They were in the middle vehicle.”
“Women and children” is the response.