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‘National Bird’ documentary uncovers the very human impact of machine-based drone warfare

Sonia Kennebeck, the director of the documentary "National Bird," which explores the human impacts of drone warfare.
Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Sonia Kennebeck, the director of the documentary "National Bird," which explores the human impacts of drone warfare.

In recent years, the debate over drone warfare has reached new prominence but, in early 2013, Malaysian filmmaker Sonia Kennebeck struggled to find any information on the U.S. military’s drone program outside of commentary and conjecture made by American journalists. That didn’t sit well with her.

“I read commentary in the papers … it sounded so surreal, like science fiction, that these types of weapons are being used, unmanned aircraft,” Kennebeck told St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh. “I wanted to know more about it. The one piece of information didn’t really match up: the count of civilian casualties. In early 2013, they were only talking single-digit casualties and to me it did not seem realistic, especially seeing that drones were being used at that time already pretty heavily.”

So she began her research, using FOIA requests and insights with three whistleblowers from within the U.S. military. Her documentary, called “National Bird," about the U.S. drone war was recently released.  It was executive produced by acclaimed documentary filmmaker Errol Morris.

The documentary follows three lead “characters,” military veterans who were all at some point involved in operating, analyzing or working with technology on drones used in Afghanistan and other foreign lands.

The first person highlighted, Heather, is in her mid-20s and works as an “imagery analyst.”

“Her job was to analyze live video feed coming from drones and make the call: is this person carrying a weapon vs. a shovel?” Kennebeck said. “That’s a far-reaching decision that she had to make. She really is struggling. She has a lot of nightmares and trauma. While on the job, she was on a suicide watch list. Her journey is trying to get help and support, psychological help. That was not easy.”

Poster for the film "National Bird."
Credit National Bird
Poster for the film "National Bird."

Kennebeck’s film also gives the viewer insight into the life of Daniel, a “signals intelligence analyst,” who works with technology on a drone, tracking down targets and people. Interestingly, Daniel is also a peace activist who attends protests against war. He faces government backlash in the film.

The third character is Lisa, who has worked for the U.S. military for 20 years, her latest deployment in the drone program. She works on the surveillance system behind drones and travels to Afghanistan to study how people perceive drones in countries where the drones are actually in use.

Kennebeck said she created the film in order to bring transparency to the U.S. government’s use of drone technology in warfare. She wanted to show how humans are impacted by the use of technology. She hopes it will spur further change in national and international laws about drone use.

“There are a lot of problems with this weapon and the way it is being used,” Kennebeck said. “There are some who say it is not covered by international law. This is one of the times where technology has outpaced rules and regulations and, to a certain extent, even our moral standards. It is upon us to catch up. In order to do that, we need more information, we have to understand how many people are being killed, how many are civilians, to even judge the efficiency of this weapon and if it is as safe as people say.”

“National Bird” screened for the first time in St. Louis on April 5 at the Missouri History Museum. It will premiere on PBS stations across the country, and Nine Network, on May 1 at 10 p.m. More information on screenings can be found here.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.

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