December: National Bird

“Networks, Connection and Information”

Kristopher Fallon (UC, Davis)

In the opening scenes of National Bird, Sofia Kennebeck’s 2016 portrait of the humans behind the early years of the United States’ unoccupied aerial vehicle – or drone – warfare program, we meet Heather as she introduces herself to several other students in her massage therapy training program. She chose massage, she explains, because she wanted to connect with other people and heal them while she healed herself.  Direct physical contact, she reasons, might provide an antidote to the trauma of witnessing and contributing to violence and death at a distance, an experience she endured analyzing images and identifying targets for the Air Force’s drone program during her tour in the military. While her theory makes a good deal of sense, it also raises a number of challenges: to the fundamental promise of drone warfare, but also for the project of the film, and documentary more broadly. These are contradictions the film tacitly explores without ever fully resolving.

While aerial surveillance and warfare have a long history, the current iteration of the military’s drone program took off, so to speak, in the early years of the war on terror as traditional legal definitions of engagement, enemy combatants, and human rights were re-worked or simply disregarded in an effort to grapple with the challenges posed by remote, asymmetrical warfare. Drones, the military argued, were supposed to keep soldiers out of harm’s way by deploying cameras and weapons systems in their place and allowing action to be carried out at a safe remove. The camera’s proximity to its subject (target), the logic went, provided sufficient information for action while the distance it enabled minimized the (American) casualties. The trauma and remorse that Heather and the other subjects in the film describe, and the incredibly tragic 2010 mistaken attack on Afghan civilians that it reenacts, directly contradict both of these assumptions.

Information is thus a potent, if ambivalent, force throughout the film, pushing its various social actors forward even as it seems to punish them. Lisa, a former technical sergeant, explains that information in the form of data is the very food that the global drone network devours. Daniel, an intelligence contractor for the NSA, is arrested in the course of the film’s production for espionage, for illegally sharing information. Informing the world about the reality of the drone program is Heather’s larger purpose for speaking out in an op-ed she publishes in The Guardian. The innocent victims of the drone attack referenced above travel for several days to tell their stories so “that the world community can hear our voice and learn about our helpless situation.” Misinformation, a failure to properly read the data or pay attention to its meaning, is what leads to this attack in the first place. Information is at once insufficient to base action upon, but more than sufficient to inflict damage upon the people faced with those choices.  

This is the contradiction that the drone program apparently rests upon. But documentary rests on a similar supposition: a remote camera can travel where we cannot and provide us with information about the world that we can and should use as the basis of further action. How then are we, the audience for the film, supposed to respond to the information that it provides? Is the drone project bad simply because of the quality of the information it utilizes, because of the actions it is used to carry out, or simply by virtue of its existence and the persistent surveillance it enables?

This apparent ambivalence is on full display in the original drone imagery the film includes, images reminiscent of the screen savers that appear on an Apple TV that feature mesmerizing images of exotic landscapes. In the film, they appear as rich aerial landscape shots of its various locations, including rural Pennsylvanian woods and fields, suburban neighborhood sub-developments, and the densely populated urban environment of San Francisco. While Kennebeck and reviewers in both The Guardian and The New York Times insist this footage works to “turn the camera around” (Kennebeck) and “demonstrate the technology can be used against any community” (Alex Needham in The Guardian), this seems to me a failure to acknowledge the inherent power differential at work in drone warfare as well as the seductive heterogeneous nature of the technology itself. Certainly, everyone may be subject to drone surveillance, and post Edward Snowden all of us know we experience some form of surveillance, but the distance between this as a possibility for most audiences and the reality of it for the victims who experience it daily is far greater than the flight range of any drone, and perhaps greater than the optical capabilities of documentary itself.  

Instead, the arresting beauty of these shots demonstrates the power and ready availability of the technology itself as well as the draw of viewing the world with the illusory omniscience that the drone view offers. The proliferation of drone imagery within our wider visual culture (alongside Apple TV and the film itself there are now nearly two dozen drone film festivals) implies an apparent acceptance its presence if not a latent desire for more. The inclusion of these images alongside grainy, low resolution battle footage may also prompt us to ask why they are so aesthetically superior. Part of the explanation is technical. The drones used for these shots fly much lower and record rather than broadcast the material they capture. But the disjunction also forces us to confront the limits of our knowledge about this technology, what may or may not be available in classified and top-secret weapons programs, and the disconnect between the hype of drone imagery and its legitimate potential.  
This uncertainty puts the viewer in a paranoid spiral between the real and the imagined, the known and the secret, a paranoia fully performed by Heather and Lisa and tragically legitimated by Daniel’s unclear legal fate. Once again, information, or its absence, exerts its influence. To the extent that it forces us to ask questions, demand openness and challenge the choices that are carried out using our tax dollars and in our interests, this paranoia is useful. To the extent that we become enraptured by the aesthetic experience the drone provides or merely accept its existence as an inevitable product of technological progress (a position the figures in the film express several times), then we can count ourselves among the many victims of the drone program itself.

“Mobilizing the Damage of Drone Warfare”

Daniel Grinberg (UC, Santa Barbara)

As drone warfare proliferates at frightening rates, how can documentarians mobilize this issue for audiences in compelling ways? Many of the hurdles of critical representation are logistical, including the multiple spatiotemporal scales of operations and the separation of screens and continents between operators and their targets. Relatedly, there are problems of access, with the victims of attacks located in precarious regions and the U.S. military routinely classifying mission information under the auspices of national security. Thus, to convey the multitude of physical, psychological, and affective impacts of drone warfare, non-fiction filmmakers have to adapt their methods of argumentation.

The central strategy of National Bird (dir. Sonia Kennebeck, 2016) is to focus on the narratives of three Americans: Heather, Daniel, and Lisa. As a former drone pilot, National Security Agency intelligence analyst, and technical sergeant respectively, they have witnessed the U.S. program’s destructiveness and ethical violations firsthand. Bravely opting to become whistleblowers, they use their experiences to provide many of the film’s most substantive critiques. For instance, Daniel notes that any male sixteen or older is automatically counted as an enemy combatant in the deeply flawed calculus of fatalities. They are also the documentary’s chief representatives of the trauma that being a part of the kill chain can produce.

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Yet, to supplement the more conventional use of cinéma vérité, Kennebeck employs several other techniques. The variety she draws on suggests just how tricky it is to capture the multifaceted dynamics of this evolving modality of war, and the need for documentarians to adjust responsively and creatively. One such method intercuts remarks of then-President Obama attesting to the drone program’s legality and effectiveness with evidence directly contradicting his assertions. The documentary also includes recurring aerial shots of U.S. neighborhoods. This choice evokes the increasing normalization of unmanned vehicles and the (asymmetrical) threats of surveillance and attack that they pose to all aerial spaces.

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However, the most disturbing technique is to reenact a radio traffic transcript of an actual strike by a Predator drone crew. Hearing the gleeful willingness of the men to initiate a fatal attack without any evidence chillingly contradicts the technofetishistic rhetoric of “surgical precision.” Rather than weighing the decision to fire a missile with the gravity it merits, we hear the Special Operations Unit officer haphazardly dismiss the presence of children because “Twelve-, thirteen-year-old with a weapon is just as dangerous.” The pilot also describes his “master plan” as “I don’t know. Hope we get to shoot the truck with all the dudes in it.” Looking through the recreated vantage of low-quality drone footage, we learn that 23 civilians were killed based on the callous, racist whims of these men.

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In addition, the film acknowledges that most media critiques of U.S.-led wars deliberately or unconsciously exceptionalize the American perspective. When the painful aftermaths of conflict do reach the screen, it is predominantly through the suffering U.S. soldier or haunted veteran. By contrast, National Bird’s most powerful sequence shows Lisa traveling to Afghanistan to foreground the perspectives of affected locals. They testify to their ground-level experiences of the same attack reenacted through the transcript.

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This embodied perspective gives heartrending specificity to victims so often erased in mainstream discourses. As one woman describes the strike that maimed one son and killed her husband, daughter, and other son, her stricken expressions and voice help convey her immeasurable suffering. In the middle of the testimony, a helicopter also flies overhead. The noise of the rotor blades prompts an older woman to recoil and say, “Oh God! May God bring peace to the country!” Her distressed reaction in response to a seemingly mundane sound further underscores the everyday violence of occupied airspaces. Through the circulation of such intimate (e)motions, the film is able to more fully animate the damage of drone warfare. By moving us to care as both viewers and complicit citizens, it ultimately invites us to also mobilize against such ongoing injustices.

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