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2017 / National Bird

Sonia Kennebeck

Sonia Kennebeck

National Bird, directed and produced by Sonia Kennebeck, is the 2017 recipient of The Ridenhour Documentary Film Prize.

National Bird follows the dramatic journey of three whistleblowers who are determined to break the silence around one of the most controversial current affairs issues of our time: the secret U.S. drone war. At the center of the film are three U.S. military veterans. Plagued by guilt over participating in the killing of faceless people in foreign countries, they decide to speak out publicly, despite the possible consequences. The filmgives rare insight into the U.S. drone program through the eyes of veterans and survivors, connecting their stories as never seen before in a documentary.

The Obama administration acknowledged killing 117 civilians, but organizations like the Bureau of Investigative Journalism put that number far higher, into the many hundreds. Through the film, wrote Kennebeck, she hoped “to enliven the public debate not just by enriching the existing discourse with a balanced portrait of the U.S. drone program, but more importantly by illuminating the impact this program has on the people — veterans and survivors — the human side of this war.”

“In its chilling expose of the consequential direct personal and social trauma of drone warfare National Bird exemplifies the spirit of fearless truth-telling that whistleblower and investigative journalist Ron Ridenhour reflected throughout his extraordinary life and career,” said the selection committee.

Kennebeck said “It’s a great honor and reinforcement of our work to receive the Ridenhour Documentary Film Prize during a time when journalists and whistleblowers are facing so much opposition for exposing government misconduct and telling the truth. National Bird documents the lengths the US government will go to silence whistleblowers, highlighting the courage and conscience of those who decide to come forward and speak out against the drone war. This award acknowledges the important role of whistleblowers and investigative journalists in a democracy and it encourages me and my team to continue our work in the spirit of Ron Ridenhour.”

Kennebeck is an independent documentary filmmaker and investigative journalist with more than 15 years of directing and producing experience. She has directed eight television documentaries and more than 50 investigative reports.

She began her career as a broadcast producer in Washington, DC and worked five years as an investigative reporter for Germany’s highest-rated and longest-running current affairs program Panorama. Kennebeck received a Master’s degree in International Affairs from American University in Washington, D.C. She was born in Malacca, Malaysia and lives in New York.

Documentary Film Prize Remarks

Transcript of Documentary Film Prize Remarks

SONIA KENNEBECK:  Thanks, Dana. It’s really an honor to be introduced by you, one of the best national security reporters in journalism. So, thank you very much. [applause] And thanks to the Fertel Foundation and the Nation Institute for this wonderful award in the name of Ron Ridenhour, a truth teller. It’s especially meaningful in a time like this when whistleblowers and journalists have to fear criminal prosecution and when journalists as well through the technology, the surveillance technologies nowadays, are really under threat and our ability is threatened to keep our information and our sources private and protected from the government.

And I faced many of these challenges during the production of “National Bird.” In the middle of production, during the production of the film, one of the drone whistleblowers, the veterans in the film, her family was contacted by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations. They came to her family; they said to her family that she was on some sort of terrorist kill list and that she should keep a low social profile.

And shortly after that, another whistleblower in my film, and a veteran who you just saw, Daniel, was raided by the FBI and is being investigated for espionage. So, the film that initially started out to be a film about the U.S. drone program actually turned into a film about the consequences of whistle blowing, but also I think the courage of it and the courage of speaking truth to power.

And during this very critical time, whistleblower attorney, Jesselyn Radack, who is here today, she provided — [applause] Jesselyn Radack, who now works for Whisper — she provided really important legal support and is representing all three whistleblowers in my film. But she also provided a lot of mental support and psychological support and made it possible for the whistleblowers to tell the truth and speak out publicly.

But the veterans in my film are not the only truth tellers who I encountered during this journey. During the production, I didn’t just want to show one side of the drone program here in the U.S., but I also wanted to show the other side, the victims and survivors of drone strikes. So I went to Afghanistan and I met the survivors of a U.S. air strike gone wrong and killed many civilians. And I was able to speak to the men and women who survived the strike and they traveled three days and three nights to meet with us because for my cinematographer and me, it was too dangerous to go to rural Afghanistan where there were a lot of Taliban and meet with them.

So they actually decided to come to us. And I think we don’t always acknowledge the courage it takes in a war torn country to speak out and really have the courage to go public with your story and share it. And what they said to us, the first thing they said when they met us was, “We really want to share with the world community what has happened to us and how often it happens as well.”

And I think that’s really important to acknowledge when we go into these countries and collect the stories of people in these countries. So we as journalists, we rely on whistleblowers, we rely on truth tellers and I think it’s really important that we don’t have less courage than them. And same as the society, everyone in this room. I think it’s really important for us to work on our courage. And it’s not easy with increased surveillance technologies and to protect yourself, to protect our sources, attorneys are very important for the legal protection as well.

And I was very fortunate to have a very small production team, but a very dedicated and courageous production team, four people, five including myself, four of them women, actually. I’ve been asked a few times, are women more courageous? [applause] And yeah, they used encryption with me, they lived through all the paranoia during the production. And awards like this, this type of recognition, is really important for us because of the publicity that it provides, that protects whistleblowers and journalists as well.

But it also keeps us continuing doing this work and makes it possible that we can continue this work. And if you want to see “National Bird,” we actually have two screenings in Washington, D. C. One is tonight at American University, one is tomorrow at Busboys and Poets, and then there’s going to be our broadcast on PBS on May 1st.

And that’s one thing that I want to leave you with. This film, and that shows that something in this democracy works, this film received substantial funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. [applause] And it’s only out now today because the Independent Television Service funded this film since development and was also very courageous, I think, to take on a project like this. So thank you very, very much, I appreciate it. [applause]