By Travis Johnson

“Drone warfare fascinated me in a way,” filmmaker Sonia Kennebeck tells us. “Because there was lot a lot of commentary in the newspapers about the use of drones but very little information from the inside of the program, people who are directly impacted.”

It was that curiosity that led to the creation of National Bird: Drone Wars, a documentary that examines the human cost of the US military’s drone warfare program – an element of conflict ostensibly designed to protect the lives of American servicemen. “When I started my research I really wanted to make a film about the people, to see how drone warfare affects the veterans, the military personnel on one side, and then the victims on the other side.”

It’s a logical extension of Kennebeck’s earlier work, in a way. She has spent a good chunk of her career as an investigative journalist dealing with veterans’ issues, a field of inquiry that led her to start looking at the drone program and what former serving personnel thought of it, and particularly how drone operators were represented in veteran suicide statistics. “Between 20 and 22 veterans are committing suicide per day,” she explains. “Which I thought was an extraordinarily high number.”

Her experience working with military veterans also gave her another advantage: Kennebuck had built up a lot of trust in the community and had a reputation as someone who protects her sources. Given the secrecy the drone program is shrouded in, that was important; her interview subjects, such as Heather Linebaugh, a massage therapist who formerly served in the Air Force, needed to feel safe. “For her it was important to know that I have an understanding of encryption and protecting data.”

It took some work to track down Linebaugh. “I was going through internet forums and message boards and I came across this photo of a young woman who was holding up a sheet of paper and covering up most of her face, you could only see her eyes, and on the sheet of paper it said, ‘Not everything you hear about the drone program is true – I know what I’m talking about.’ I started to go on a bit of a detective hunt trying to find the person on the photograph, looking on Facebook and all these social media platforms.”

Eventually, Kennebeck made contact and Linebaugh agreed to go on the record. “In the first meeting she told me that she lost three of her former colleagues to suicide.”

While National Bird raises serious questions about the nature of the drone program, and particularly the toll it takes on its personnel, Kennebeck insists that she began the project with no assumptions and merely followed where the story led her. “I didn’t really have a thesis in mind. I think it’s important, as an investigative journalist, to be open minded. I’ve worked on many films and investigative reports before where I started out with an idea and it completely changed in the research. I told [my interview subjects] that I’m not an activist, I’m a journalist, and that’s my approach to the film, and then events happened in the course of production.”

National Bird: Drones Wars Screens at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image’s Lies and Secrets film season, which runs from October 14 – 25. For more info, go to the official site.

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