NATIONAL BIRD follows the dramatic journey of three whistleblowers 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. At the center of the film are three U.S. military veterans. Plagued by guilt over participating in the killing of faceless people in foreign countries, they decide to speak out publicly, despite the possible consequences. Their stories take dramatic turns, leading one of the protagonists to Afghanistan where she learns about a horrendous incident. But her journey also gives hope for peace and redemption. NATIONAL BIRD gives rare insight into the U.S. drone program through the eyes of veterans and survivors, connecting their stories as never seen before in a documentary. Its images haunt the audience and bring a faraway issue close to home.
Cast and Crew
Director Sonia Kennbeck
Producer Wim Wenders, Errol Morris
Director of Photography Torsten Lapp
Editor Maxine Goedicke
Score Insa Rudolph
It was Ramadan and we were still six hours away from sunset when we could have our first sip of water. That day, it was over one hundred degrees and no one except a little boy in front of me had anything to drink. But in this very moment, thirst didn’t cross my mind. My thoughts and my vision had honed in on the two people in front of me: a father and his son, both dressed in light blue traditional Afghan garb. With a calm voice the man quietly recounted the most disturbing experience of his life. His son, not a year over ten, was cuddled up close, tenderly holding his father’s hand.
Over the three days we filmed the family, the boy was never more than a few steps away from his beloved father. The Taliban had attacked the Afghan parliament with a car bomb, only blocks away from us. Maybe he was still feeling the impact from the loud blast that shook all of us up the previous day. But something tugged at me, suggesting otherwise.
We were sitting in a shady waiting room with turquoise walls at a hospital in Kabul, where this man shared with me that he was studying to become a doctor when a bomb from a U.S. airstrike tore off his leg and shattered his dreams. I didn’t understand his soft-spoken Dari, but two years into my research on drones, his story was all too familiar.
Military leaders have long aspired to wage war through unmanned weapons systems that kill enemies without putting their own troops in harm’s way. Over a decade ago, this vision turned into reality, but much of it was skillfully hidden from the public. As an investigative journalist, I am drawn to secrets. So when I started this project in 2013, I was curious to understand more about the U.S. drone program that had grown so exponentially under the Obama administration and by many accounts had become the President’s weapon of choice in the global war on terror. As a firm believer in the First Amendment and government transparency, I struggled with the secrecy and lack of public discourse around such an extensive killing program.
National Bird is an investigative political documentary that explores the complex issue of drone warfare from a human perspective. Through this film, I hope to enliven the public debate not just by enriching the existing discourse with a balanced portrait of the U.S. drone program, but more importantly by illuminating the impact this program has on the people – veterans and survivors – the human side of this war. Like previous advancements in military technology, combat drones have transformed warfare, outpacing the ability of legal and moral frameworks to adapt and address these developments. A broad, immersive, and thoroughly public discourse is critical to understanding the social cost of drone warfare.
From the day I met my first source in rural Pennsylvania to that moment in Kabul where I sat on a wooden bench opposite a maimed man and his son, this project has grown far beyond my expectations. The protagonists have given me intimate access to their stories and lives to educate the public about a weapons program with global implications. I greatly respect their courage and thoughtfulness, but most of all their humanity.