Opening at the Cinema Village on Friday, “National Bird” has the distinction of having Wim Wenders and Errol Morris sharing credits as Executive Producer. With these two very respected filmmaking veterans on board this documentary about Predator drones, I decided to give it a shot despite the theme. Recent brief looks at the narrative film “Good Kill” on cable TV had inured me against any film dramatizing the “suffering” of men and women who sit in front of consoles in air-conditioned trailers while they direct missile attacks on Afghans, Pakistanis, Somalis and anybody else that gets in the way of American foreign policy objectives. Somehow, the sight of Ethan Hawke drowning his sorrows in booze after a day of blowing up wedding parties left me wondering why anybody would bother trying to develop sympathy for such killers.
Suffice it to say that Wenders and Morris showed their film acumen by becoming involved with this project since “National Bird” is the definitive take on the kind of postmodern warfare that is the hallmark of the Obama administration and that will likely continue if not expand under the “isolationist” Trump administration.
The film eschews any interviews with political analysts and sticks strictly to the stories of three people involved in drone warfare, two of whom we only know by first names. The first one we meet is Heather Linebaugh, a 20-something Pennsylvanian who worked as an “imagery analyst,” a job that involved determining whether the target was truly military before they were permitted to push the “fire” button. Like most people that age who got involved with remote control murder, her first impulse was to go with the flow since it was part of “protecting the homeland” as Obama put it in a brief snippet.. Plus, it gave her a chance to see the world, a ticket out of her humdrum life in a small town where employment opportunities were limited for a high school graduate.
Next there is Lisa who served as a technical sergeant and whose job it was to serve as a kind of database administrator over a worldwide “bad guys” list. Like Heather, she never pushed a button but she was canny enough about the drone program to understand that she was involved in war crimes.
Finally, there is Daniel, a consultant to the program who begins by saying that he only joined up because he was homeless and desperate. After he became a whistleblower, the FBI conducted a raid on his house as a first step in prosecuting him under the U.S. Espionage Act.
Of the three, Heather Linebaugh is certainly the best known as a result of her December 29, 2013 Guardian op-ed piece titled “I worked on the US drone program. The public should know what really goes on” that starts:
Whenever I read comments by politicians defending the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Predator and Reaper program – aka drones – I wish I could ask them a few questions. I’d start with: “How many women and children have you seen incinerated by a Hellfire missile?” And: “How many men have you seen crawl across a field, trying to make it to the nearest compound for help while bleeding out from severed legs?” Or even more pointedly: “How many soldiers have you seen die on the side of a road in Afghanistan because our ever-so-accurate UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] were unable to detect an IED [improvised explosive device] that awaited their convoy?”
One of the great merits of the film, besides conveying the genuine angst felt by people such as the three subjects, is showing in great detail the impact drone warfare had on a three-car civilian convoy in Afghanistan back on February 21, 2010. When three cars pulled up to a roadside rest area so that the passengers could pray, they were attacked by missiles that left 23 people dead.
The film recreates the incident using the radio recordings of the military personnel that is simply horrifying. Even though the drone cameras can hardly reveal the ages of the people who have begun leaving the cars to pray, that does not matter to the remote control killers who have the same mindset as the cops who have been killing Black people with impunity in the past few years especially the final sentence below:
“Well, they certainly have…2 SUVs and a pickup truck with at least 5 dudes in the back, maybe 6. If the 4 door pickup truck is full, we’re talking about maybe 10 guys in the pickup truck, probably 6-7 in each SUV, upwards of 25 guys possibly.”
“They’re praying, they are praying. This is definitely…their force. Praying? I mean seriously, that’s what they do.”
“They’re gonna do something nefarious,” one man observed, adding that there was an “adolescent near the rear of the SUV.”
“Well, teenagers can fight.”
“Pick up a weapon and you’re a combatant, it’s how that works.”
As stated above, Barack Obama will go down in history as the Predator drone president. If you see “National Bird” (and you should), keep in mind what he said at White House Correspondents Dinner press conference in 2010, the same year that 23 people were killed in Afghanistan on their way to prayer and others left without limbs:
The Jonas Brothers are here; they’re out there somewhere. Sasha and Malia are huge fans. But boys, don’t get any ideas. I have two words for you, ‘predator drones.’ You will never see it coming. You think I’m joking.
Next Tuesday and Wednesday, “Finding Kukan” will be shown at the DOC NYC Festival in NY.
Like the similarly named “Finding Babel”, this is a filmmaker’s tribute to an important historical figure that deserves greater recognition. Like Isaac Babel, Li Ling-Ai was part of a generation that was traumatized by the horrors of the 1930s. As a Chinese woman who grew up in Hawaii, Li Ling-Ai was committed to documenting the atrocities Japan was visiting on cities such as Nanking in late 1937.
Although she had never made a film before, and faced the obstacles any Asian woman would have in getting one produced, she managed to recruit photographer Rey Scott to visit China and film the bombing raids over Nanking and Chungking (now Chongqing). Scott was an Indiana Jones type adventurer who made the film possible but without Ling-Ai’s dogged persistence, he never would have had been able to complete “Kukan” (kukan is the Chinese word for persistence under adversity, a reference to the Chinese Aleppo-like will to survive in 1937 as well as Ling-Ai’s stubborn commitment to making such a film.)
“Kukan” received a citation at the 1941 Academy Awards but was lost in obscurity ever since. When director Robin Lung first learned about the film, she began a seven-year odyssey to discover a print of the film and find out about who Li Ling-Ai and Rey Scott were. In a real sense, her persistence was analogous to Ling-Ai’s.
The film shows her working to track down a print of the film and interviewing relatives of Li Ling-Ai and Rey Scott, as well as consulting archives to find out everything she could about the two, including Columbia University’s rare book department.
As someone who has a passion for filmmaking that tends to take a back seat to writing reviews such as these as well as political analysis in general, I found “Finding Kukan” totally absorbing. Even if you are not exactly coming from the same place as me, I recommend the film as a fascinating look at a charismatic personality who was committed to solidarity with the Chinese people in a time of great peril and distress.