National Bird: Drone Wars – interview with director Sonia Kennebeck (Part 2)



you feature in this film some pretty harrowing footage of a drone strike can you just firstly tell us how you came to get hold of this footage how are you allowed to show footage of this nature where essentially you're seeing a bunch of very trigger-happy people looking for an excuse to attack what it looks like to be an innocent convoy of civilians and the footage that we show of this strike is a reenactment but this reenactment is based on on rhe and the transcripts of and the radio traffic transcripts of their you know the conversation between the drone pilot and his sensor operator and two thousand page investigation file of this incident so I I had access to the investigation file that includes maps photographs photographs of the aftermath of you know the strike descriptions of what has happened interviews with you know almost everyone involved including the victims and and the survivors and and even their medical records so I chose this specific strike and these victims and survivors to interview because I had this this paperwork this investigation file and I you know I could have interviewed many other victims and survivors but in this case and I could be absolutely sure that you know this had happened the way we are you know telling the story in in the film and so I chose and the the the transcript a conversation and between a drone crew is 80 pages long and and I it was actually very hard for me to choose certain you know parts because it's completely representatives you can over the course of I think six hours or so and you know who is following and these cars and these needs and all these people that they later on attack and they are there so they are so trigger-happy over and over again and they were just trying to find a reason and to strike so it seems and and that's what I wanted to show and the film it's absolutely harrowing the way that you show how even when you're looking at people when the people with their fingers on the triggers are looking at their supposedly the enemy how they are looking for any excuse to fire the weapon how abstracted the whole engagement becomes one would have thought that the opposite would occur well I think one of the big problems is that the drone crews the people operating the the drones are often very far away from the target areas so they are detached and they often you know at least in this specific case they they didn't know the cultural context and so there's a little scene in the film where the families are praying and they are leaving the cars and they have their you know their the prayer carpets and they are preying on the ground which is you know normal in a Muslim country and you know they were doing there you know one of their daily prayers and the people who were watching young through drones on the other almost the other side of the world they thought that praying that that you know the people were getting out of the car that they were praying was a preparation for an attack so it really seems that they were not aware of the cultural context and it's just one one of the problems with the the drone board they were just you know they're very very far away they didn't understand kind of the country the culture the religion and yes and I think you know just watching them and screen and often in black and it you know increase this feeling that they are not watching and targeting real people it's extraordinary and just to make clear so all the audio and the vision from that sequence that that's a recreation from a transcript yes correct so it's a verbatim and recreation of the transcript we we paid a lot of attention to detail and I spoke to you know not just the veterans and whistleblowers in my film but to you know additional ones and and people who are familiar with this kind of material we're saying that it's it's sounds and looks pretty pretty real now what stage did vim vendors and Errol Morris get involved in the production of this film I approached them vendors during the development and did research and development phase I I had no prior contact to either of them I contacted bin vendors assistance and you know ask for an appointment and waited and you know that he would have time he's a very very busy productive filmmaker and once once he had time for an appointment I showed him my work in progress I had made a fundraising trailer and while he was watching it he said whatever I can do to help you I will do and I said do you want to be my executive producer and he said yes and the reason I had approached him and later on we approached Errol Morris together is that I wanted to have an additional layer of protection to my project I knew that there was you know risk involved and making this type of film working with whistleblowers which people who had top-secret clearances and I I thought that having these you know famous and filmmakers attached to the product is fearless directors and you know would make it more difficult for the government to intimidate me and my protagonist now in the film Heather I think quite wisely voices concern about whether what she's doing the article that she wrote for The Guardian is actually going to end up having any impact at all given the culture of information glut that we live in at the moment sonya d share any of those concerns that with the cacophony of a thousand voices screaming at people all the time from a thousand different platforms that there are some different media channels that this is actually going to have any impact we are already seeing impact now you know at screenings of the film people are audience members are coming out in some of them you know crying and a very disturbed and in shock and has been telling us that they had no idea that you know either this was happening or that you know that they didn't know how the people are affected by it as this drone war and the people who are you know operating the drones and and then of course the people in the target countries because he's rarely see their stories so I I think it you know it has an impact and you know this is not this is not as loud and screaming film this layout is I think this this this film is is subtle at you know right from what I've been seeing it's really moving people and moving them to to think about the subject and discuss it and and and it yeah it creates and a lot of thoughts and discussion the q and A's are very very long after the film screenings and then we also have you know we're starting to have some political impact as well we've been speaking to you know members of parliament in indy after european german and UK parliament and we recently spoke with a staff member of a and US senator was it one of our screenings and was with very impacted by the film and said this is really a film about you know the people in the human beings and for him it's not even political it's it's it's about the people it's important that and it is it is seen so yeah I mean I'm I'm optimistic i think it is it is creating a lot of discussion that's what we wanted and we are even hearing that you know people from the military and veterans are you know responding very very positively I actually gave an interview to an armed force egg British Armed Forces TV and radio and we talked about the post-traumatic stress disorder and you know what kind of help is out there for for military personnel and veterans of the drone program well Sergei you do deserve congratulations for making a very humanist film about drone warfare and also highlighting as you mentioned during our chat about the the the rush of technology and how it's usually ethics and rules and modes and codes of behavior that usually have to chase the technology and have to try to catch up that the ability of technology usually gives vent to some of the more primal urges of people especially of warriors during war so congratulations on the film I i do have just one final thing I just wanted to mention to you just as we wrap up I have noticed that women are taking playing a huge part in the telling of this war I recently spoke with susanna white who directed half of the episodes of generation kill a very good miniseries about the American involvement in the Middle East Tina Fey was in charge of adapting the Taliban shuffle booked into the film you you know whiskey tango foxtrot and of course kathryn bigelow made the hurt locker and zero dark thirty you have made this film why do you think women are playing such a big part in the challenge of the story of this war well I personally think women are not playing a big enough part because you know we are half of the population and women are you know just as affected by war and conflict as men are and in some cases they even play in my mind and a larger role that people don't even talk about because you know in times of crisis and times of conflict and war women take responsibility not just for themselves but for the children and the elders and they are the ones when the you know men go out and fight you you know who care for the survival and in their communities and and then in addition we've been seeing which you know the recent wars that women also take on combat roles so that's why I personally think it's very very important that women you know write about war that women make films about war and conflict and national security and because I think we we look out more too you know capture our sides of the stories as well and the perspectives of of women which have been you know largely neglected in the past

EYES IN THE SKY: The disturbing new documentary National Bird examines the myths and realities of America’s highly secret drone war program.

Drone warfare has always offered a very attractive alternative to conventional battle.

With their operators often sitting half a world away, aerial robots can locate the enemy with pinpoint accuracy and kill them without ever putting friendly troops at risk.

Yet while waging war in such a remote-controlled way has many benefits, the ethics and human cost of drone war have gone largely unreported.

In National Bird: Drone Wars, director Sonia Kennebeck, a New York-based investigative reporter, takes a fresh look at the realities of America’s deployment of drones through the carefully legalled testimonies of three former operators.

The results are illuminating and often disturbing.

One witness, Heather, had the job of analysing drone imagery to determine whether the people on the ground were legitimate targets. She tells of how eager many of the drone crews were to fire missiles before conclusive evidence was in.

A frail woman in her 20s, Heather also reconfigures our traditional image of what a war veteran looks like.

Though she never left her homeland to step onto a live battlefield, the nature of her work and the hundreds of deaths she might have been responsible for play on her mind constantly. She suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, due largely to the uncertainty of how many innocents might have died because of her.

In this interview, Hennebeck discusses the issues raised by the film, how legally difficult it was to make and what impact it is having.

She also stresses that she is a documentarian, not an activist, and that the film is not intended to dismiss out-of-hand the use of drones in peace or in war. What is needed, she argues, is strict oversight and a much tighter set of rules.

National Bird: Drone Wars screens at ACMI 6.10pm Friday, 1.30pm Sunday, 3.10pm Monday.

The film is part of ACMI’s Secrets and Lies program. For more details visit:

To view the interview with Sonia Kennebeck, please click here:

To view a trailer for National Bird: Drone Wars, please click here:

1 comment on “National Bird: Drone Wars – interview with director Sonia Kennebeck (Part 2)

  1. Chris Snyder

    Trigger happy drone pilots: I remember reading that the US military found they get the "best" results in recruiting drone operators if they take them from people who loved to spend their recreational time in virtual reality type shoot-em up video games. They are already conditioned to get positive feelings from hitting their targets, and are not about to question whether those in their cross hairs are worthy of death, since in the video games there are not a lot of innocents to worry about killing. It creates a group mentality that insulates them from having any doubts about what they are doing when they take their video game skills and use them to operate predator drones.

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