'National Bird': Berlin Review

National Bird still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
Death from above.

Errol Morris and Wim Wenders executive produced Sonia Kennebeck’s documentary.

There has been no shortage of films dealing with drones over the last few years, not to mention the hundreds of movies employing them to create some extremely vivid aerial photography sequences.

Whether it’s Ethan Hawke nursing a jittery trigger finger in Good Kill, Helen Mirren coldly ordering attacks in Eye in the Sky or the troubling information uncovered in the Norwegian documentary Drone, audiences have recently had the occasion to explore a form of modern warfare whose true repercussions are yet to be fully understood, let alone divulged to the general public.

In National Bird, documentarian Sonia Kennebeck (Sex: Made in Germany) focuses primarily on the human casualties wrought by the U.S. Air Force’s use of drones to take down targets in Afghanistan and other foreign lands. Presenting a trio of former military employees whose lives have been upended by their experience behind the joystick, as well as the innocent victims — men, women and children — of bombings that wrongly targeted civilians, this chilling exposé highlights the morally murky waters into which ongoing conflicts and advanced technology have led us.

Premiering in the Berlinale Special sidebar, the U.S.-Germany co-production could fly abroad on the heels of executive producers Errol Morris and Wim Wenders, with likely bookings on VOD and the possibility of theatrical play in select territories.

Less concerned with stats or figures than with revealing the faces behind the action, Kennebeck follows three people who took part in the USAF’s unmanned aerial vehicle program, each of them suffering psychological trauma from a job that had them assisting in, though not necessarily pulling the trigger on, drone missions responsible for many deaths and even more collateral damage.

Known by their first names, we meet Heather, a 20-something Pennsylvanian who worked as an “imagery analyst,” confirming whether potential targets were real; Lisa, a surveillance expert who feels remorse over participating in a system that inadvertently — or, as we come to learn, unscrupulously at times — killed civilians; and Darrel, an intelligence operative who has decided to speak candidly about certain aspects of the drone program, even if he may wind up in prison under the draconian laws of the U.S. Espionage Act.

Tracking their progress over a few years, Kennebeck reveals how each of them has been affected by belonging to a chain of command that could end lives in distant countries with only the push of a button. Heather seems to suffer the worse for it, transforming from a girl who once joined the program because it looked “so badass” into someone diagnosed with PTSD, and for whom the decision to go public about her work in The Guardian does not necessarily alleviate all the pain and guilt. Meanwhile, Darrel finds himself more and more cornered by the charges he may be facing, his courage to speak up barely concealing what seems to be a fragile persona.

If the film takes some time to get moving, it reaches its apotheosis midway through when Lisa travels to Afghanistan to meet with victims of drone attacks, uncovering a small massacre that occurred when helicopters fired on a caravan of families confirmed as insurgents by a Predator UAV. At this point Kennebeck recreates with painstaking detail (including the use of original mission transcripts) an event that underscores how impossible it is for analysts to prevent civilian deaths by studying grainy footage from thousands of miles away, especially while serving under commanders eager to rack up kills for their military standing.

National Bird hardly offers any counterpoint to the arguments presented, nor does it attempt to show how drones could possibly save the lives of U.S. soldiers either on the ground or in the air. But it does reveal a program whose international reach and seemingly limitless surveillance powers are extraordinarily difficult to keep in check (“It’s like borders don’t matter anymore,” explains Lisa), while the problem of collateral damage, whether physical or psychological, is yet to be solved.

Shot in colorful HD by cinematographer Torsten Lapp and skillfully edited by Maxine Goedicke, the doc hops easily from locations in suburban Americana to downtown Kabul, with a number of haunting, rather beautiful sequences revealing the landscape seen from the eye in the sky. As much as they’re the source of pain and suffering, at least drones are good for something.

Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale Special)
Production company: Ten Forward Films
Director: Sonia Kennebeck
Producers: Sonia Kennebeck, Ines Hofmann Kanna
Executive producers: Wim Wenders, Errol Morris
Director of photography: Torsten Lapp
Editor: Maxine Goedicke
Composer: Insa Rudloph
Sales: ro*co films international

In English, Dari
Not rated, 92 minutes