There are times when a documentary, even though it may not be particular well-crafted, ends up functioning as an important piece of activism, spreading awareness about an issue or giving the viewer a glimpse into an overlooked world. Its insight, in effect, substitutes for artistry. Unfortunately, an important topic is underserved by investigative journalist Sonia Kennebeck, whose new documentary about drone operators and victims in America and Afghanistan — produced by Errol Morris and Wim Wenders — falls short in both style and substance.
National Bird focuses primarily on three American ex-Air Force members who were involved in drone strikes: the middle-aged Lisa, and 20-or-early-30-somethings Heather and Daniel. They attempt to relay anecdotes about their experiences without incriminating themselves; nonetheless, they all come under direct threat of persecution by the 1917 Espionage Act. For the bulk of the film, we watch Daniel and Heather emerging from their duties and attempting to live a normal life.
As is the case in Laura Poitras’s Academy Award-winning Edward Snowden documentary Citizenfour, the place where paranoia ends and a real threat begins is something of which the viewer and the subjects of the film cannot be always sure. Both Kennebeck and Poitras’ documentaries work overtime to communicate their protagonist(s)’ fear, and legitimize it. But it’s difficult for the viewer to feel it at all intended junctures in National Bird, as so few details are actually revealed. It may be a legal necessity to do so: for instance, we spend very little time with the papers, and see almost no details of the papers that the government serves Daniel. However, Kennebeck still expects just glimpsing the heavily blacked-out papers with little explanation to affect us. Moments like these don’t help the film deliver much beyond an overarching, somewhat undirected sense of dread and despair.
Additionally, it doesn’t help that we don’t get a whole lot of context about the lives of the American characters with whom we are meant to empathize. Presumably, more biographical info would not pose a legal issue. Heather’s storyline involves struggling with military authorities to get psychiatric care for PTSD; veterans who have not seen combat, we have learned, are not prioritized for that type of treatment. But actual details about the suicides and near-suicides that she witnessed among other members of her program after she left and the specifics of her own post-Air Force experience, are only vaguely addressed.
The most powerful section of Kennebeck’s film, by far, are the interviews with family members and witnesses of a mistaken drone attack which killed 22 men, women and children in Afghanistan. Before meeting the Afghani mother who lost her children, the man who lost his leg in the explosion, and others, Kennebeck shows the attack in re-enactment that utilizes frighteningly blurry drone vision. Slightly overdone, static-ridden voiceovers from a radio transcript are included. The emotional footage in Afghanistan here is undeniably powerful; Kennebeck then unexpectedly cuts in grainy footage, filmed by one of the families of the victims, poring over their maimed remains.
This section of the film induces nausea, grief, and confusion all at the same time. Like most of the movie, these events are arranged without a great deal of context. How these victims spend their daily lives, descriptions of the wider impact of drone strikes in their region are not included; Kennebeck slices them a bit too thinly into the film, where we would like to see much more, and become more absorbed into their experience. Additionally, Lisa travels to Afghanistan with Kennebeck and an Afghan-American friend, to help and repent, but does not meet with any victims.
In a Q&A during the film’s weekend run at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival, Kennebeck explained that she limited herself to includ only normal people, who have personal, first-hand experience with drones — not experts on the issue. On the sidelines of the film, though, are two people which might fall into that category, and their brief appearances actually make for some of the film’s most persuasive and interesting moments. There is retired Joint Special Operations Command general Stanley McChrystal — who Lisa commiserates with emotionally at a book singing — and Jesselyn Radack, the lawyer who represents the film’s whistleblowers, including Edward Snowden.
Unfortunately, these compelling individuals do not stick around long enough in National Bird to provide larger context. Kennedy does not directly interview McChrystal who, though pragmatic and nuanced in his vision of reform, seems to harbor a skeptical, guilt-tinged attitude toward the program. Radack functions as a mere talking head, offering a bit of background about espionage cases, but is never shown interacting with her clients. After Daniel is served by an ominous team of federal agents who storm his home, an intertitle clarifies that Radack has negotiated with someone to allow Daniel to keep being filmed. However, how exactly she accomplishes this is not mentioned, and indeed, Daniel’s rights under law in general.
Lisa, who also answered questions about the film at Tribeca, remarked that when she first met with Kennebeck, she came equipped with a “binder” of information that went far beyond what she had seen anyone outside of the Air Force in handling. One wonders why more of its content is not included in the movie. Understandably, Kennebeck wants to protect her sources, but would it be possible for her to put more skin in the game, and divulge more of the statistics she has acquired?
National Bird will be put to wide theatrical release this year and eventually, will air on PBS. The aim is clearly to spread as much word about the drone program and the effects it poses. But it is questionable how effective the film will be in convincing skeptics of the dangers without more context. In the only hard statistic, we learn that Lisa’s program has killed 121,000 “insurgents” over two years, but we don’t know how this compares to other military death counts.
Kennebeck keeps returning to the potentially endless possibilities for the future of drone surveillance; the film ends on a exhortative monologue by Lisa on the subject. But these diatribes seem designed to speak to those already concerned about, or up in arms about laissez-faire drone policy. It seems unlikely that without presenting a more rigorous, detailed case that National Bird will convince moderates and old-guard liberals, who have lived through several misbegotten wars, that drone strikes aren’t still a better alternative to on-the-ground warfare in terms of casualties and scale.
But perhaps, with all the potential legal danger — and the eyes of the NSA always watching — National Bird just can’t make this detailed and universally convincing of a case. If that’s so, one wonders if a zeitgeist-shifting drone documentary will ever be possible.