In an age where the most popular documentaries are streamed and live-Tweeted in the home—Making A Murderer, the works of Louis Theroux, etc—a multi-layered investigation of America’s opaque drone warfare in the Middle East reads like a tough sell. The distributors of National Bird may have tacitly agreed by adding a subtitle since the film’s run at film festivals worldiwde, but its powerful engagement with the issue speaks volumes by itself. With gripping visuals and a structure that sheds intimate light on the program’s operators and victims, director and investigative journalist Sonia Kennebeck has made a debut feature that stands tall in this month’s Lies and Secrets documentary season at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne, which also includes Alex Gibney’s Zero Days, Pieter-Jan De Pue’s The Land of the Enlightened and Brian Oakes’ Jim: The James Foley Story. I spoke to Kennebeck about the challenges of finding truth in a subject riddled with obfuscation.
You write in your statement for the film that “as an investigative journalist, [you’re] drawn to secrets”. At what point did you realise that the secrets of drone warfare were something you were drawn to as a feature filmmaker as well?
I had been reading a lot about drones in the papers. but most of what I read was commentary by journalists. and people from the outside commenting about the drone war and the use of drones. I became curious because I thought that drones were the weapon of the future, but it was becoming increasingly clear that they are being used very heavily by the Obama administration. What my goal was with National Bird was to get voices and information from people from the inside. That was the biggest challenge, of course, because all of the three protagonists had top-secret clearance, and from the beginning I wanted to have people be open in front of the camera. That’s why we had to be extremely careful with what we could talk about on camera because the protagonists of my film are going on the record, they’re showing their faces and they’re also based in the US. What was also important for me was to have the other side so that’s why we travelled to Afghanistan to speak to the victims and survivors as well. It sparked my interest as a journalis,t but knowing that this was a very research-intensive project when I went into it, I thought the best medium to bring it across in a human way was through the long documentary film, because it’s a very multi-layered subject with a lot of depth; a lot of different aspects. I thought the documentary film was the right medium.
A lot of people who make their feature debut face challenges in keeping the momentum of the film going over a longer runtime. How did you settle on the specific order of the stories you’re telling in this film, in terms of editing?
You mean the order of the characters or the order of events?
Well, I guess the characters, in terms of meeting these veterans of the drone warfare program and then the Afghan interviewees.
Well, the timeline of this film is accurate, so we didn’t jump around with the footage. There is in the film, I think, a clear character development. I think it’s very clear that Heather’s storyline is her struggle in getting help for post-traumatic stress disorder, and she goes through ups and downs in the film. When I started filming with her, she had just not too long ago had left the military, so you see in the film, the first interviews with her in the film are also the first interviews we did with her when I met her. After a while—I don’t know exactly, maybe 25 minutes or so into the film—is when she gets into the Guardian. I had known her at the point for probably almost a year, and same with Daniel. When I started filming with him, he was just thinking about going public, and then he started doing all these protests, and then the raid by the FBI happened around halfway into production, so it actually is in the middle of the film. Then, when we actually move over to Afghanistan, we just followed the natural development of events. I met Lisa, she told me she travels to places like Afghanistan and she wanted to travel to Iraq in the future. We actually had the opportunity to travel with her, and while I’d always planned to speak to victims and survivors, and had already established contact people in Afghanistan, it was a very natural transition. The story of mine and the editing really just followed the story of the protagonists.
I notice as well that you are credited as a sound recordist of the film. I thought there were a lot of interesting choices with regards to sound on the film, whether it’s hearing Lisa talking over those aerial shots or hearing Obama’s address in Daniel’s apartment just piping on those loudspeakers. How would you describe your creative approach to sound, and how has that developed over the years?
I’m really happy you asked this question, because I personally think that sound is very, very important for a film, and the emotion that people are feeling while watching a film. I think it makes a difference if you are in a theatre and you have Dolby Surround Sound rather than listening to something on the computer, so we really made this film for the big screen, and sound was very important. We were a very small team, so my director of photography was doing the visuals and I had the full sound equipment and was recording sound on all the shoots. I actually transferred some of the natural sound that I had recorded to my composer Insa Rudolph, and her composition is very unique because all of the sounds of her music are naturally recorded sound. Nothing comes out of a computer, so she actually creates beats by hitting metal on metal or rubbing tiles against each other. She actually builds her own instruments as well, and she would incorporate natural sounds that I had recorded into her composition. With a film, you can’t even separate the sound design and the composition of music. There are a lot of repetitive sounds and actually images as well; certain scenes that we use throughout the film. The theme of a ceiling ventilator and a helicopter and the sound that that creates—my composer uses it in her sound design and it comes up in different situations.
Have you ever been able to be creative with sound in that manner, to meld it with music and so on? Have you been able to do that sort of thing before this film?
Not to this extent. This was the first time I was able and had the resources to do such an elaborate sound design and sound mix. We really had such an excellent team, and the composer actually spent a few days with the sound designer, the sound mixer and the editor, so we were all really working together as a team, and this was the first time I was able to do something like that. And one more thing regarding the sound: people in the target countries often hear drones before they see them, so the threatening sound of drones is also quite important when you think about the fear that drones create in the target countries.
I don’t think I’ve read a more affecting piece from a film director than the story you give about the father and son in Kabul, where you were a few blocks away from a Taliban attack just a few days earlier. You talk about in this story how you were in the waiting room, and it just unfolded in this very unexpected way. What was it like getting locations for these interviews?
The filming circumstances in Afghanistan were very difficult. As I wrote, it was Ramadan as well, so we couldn’t even really drink any water, it was very very hot, and in addition of course, the constant feeling of danger. I think they are just as affected as we were throughout the filming process, so we actually didn’t just do one interview, but we did multiple interviews with the Afghan protagonists in different locations. The reason is that we really just wanted to get to know them better, like with our American protagonists, and for my DP and me it was very important that we would spend the same effort and attention to detail to the interviews in Afghanistan. We filmed with two cameras, and we chose the right time of the day so we would have very good lighting, because we think that this kind of attention to detail and the patience and the intimacy, is another layer in the film that makes people able to identify better with the people. Of course we had to work fast, and I think my director of photography did an excellent job because it was not an easy time to film there. We couldn’t take all day, and especially with the aerial shots as well. These interviews were very affecting for the whole team and our local production coordinators so it’s good for us to know that the emotion comes across for the regular viewers.
In the process of taking National Bird to Berlin, to Tribeca, to other festivals, what have you learned about that world; about selling your film in that festival environment?
Well, I was just talking to my producer today and it’s very interesting that the audiences react very similarly. They are very affected by the film, very moved especially by the interviews and the stories of the Afghan protagonists. There are always, especially in the US, an element of shock, because a lot of the information comes out in the film, the human side of the drone war—a lot of people told us that they didn’t know about it. They weren’t aware of how decisions are being made, how people are being affected, the impact of not just the drones themselves but the surveillance network, intrusion of privacy, the post-traumatic stress disorder that some of the operators suffer from. We really have had the experience that many people have come out of the film just shaken up. We’ve gotten messages from people saying “we’ve been talking about the film all evening and discussing it”. We also have at the Q&As and the talks afterwards and even the messages, people are actually asking how they can personally get involved, if there’s anything they can do. Somehow, many people come out of this film and have this feeling that they want to be more involved, and asking for more transparency and discussion about the issue. So it has been very, very positive and quite encouraging.
That is encouraging, because I imagine, just with the kind of discussions that are had in the film, there is the possibility of it being a tool for wider change, whether it’s in regards to veterans’ affairs or just greater transparency surrounding the drone program. What kind of broader change would you like to see affected through this film? What are you pursuing in that sense?
Well, as a journalist, my main goal is to ask for transparency, I think it’s very important for the general public to be informed about the drone war. I think we should have real numbers and information about how targets are being chosen, how many civilians are being killed, how often drones are being used overall. There’s just a lot of information that we as a public should know and should have access to, because this is a new type of weapon. It changes a lot of things. I think that this is one of the times where—and this has happened in warfare befo—where technology has outpaced rules and regulations and international law. It’s important that we catch up and the countries catch up. There has to be, in my mind, a discussion that this is the type of warfare that we want.
I think the film’s an incredible way to keep that discussion going, so I wish you all the best with it and thanks so much for talking to me today. I really appreciate it.
National Bird: Drone Wars screens at ACMI from the 14th to the 17th of October as part of the Lies and Secrets season. For more information, visit the ACMI website.