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Sitting in a Bunker Outside Vegas

Bill Meyer: Whistleblower Heather pleads at one point that “Afghans are humans, too. Everyone’s not a freakin’ terrorist.”

Military drones are a popular subject in films nowadays, not surprising since more and more innocent people are dying from them. The deadly new weapon of choice deceptively frees the gunner from any direct participation, physical harm or moral obligation. You can be sitting in a small bunker in Las Vegas while people around the world in Afghanistan get mowed down like targets in a video game. And you can go home every day and feel like you’re leading a normal life protecting our citizens from terrorism.

National Bird

National Bird is a haunting character-based study of three former drone employees turned whistleblowers. Heather, Daniel and Lisa are paying a heavy price for being part of the controversial American drone program that appears to be killing as many innocent victims as ‘legitimate’ targets.

Lisa was a systems analyst who couldn’t take any more of the callousness and moral emptiness of some of her fellow employees, and ended up being the first official case of PTSD in drone warfare. Daniel is being indicted under the espionage act for exposing the controversial elements of the program, and could face serious prison time even though he’s given out no classified information.

Heather is planning her second trip to Afghan in an attempt to humanize her former targets. Ironically, she was invited by an Afghan neighbor to join her on a trip to her home country to deliver loads of seeds to families of victims of war. Unwilling and unable to actually identify herself to the people as one of those invisible soldiers who push buttons across the world and kill their family members, Heather remained in the background observing the tragedies her actions have created. The film actually kicks into high gear when these farmers who have traveled for almost three days to attend a conference on drone warfare, also come to participate in a program to receive prosthetic limbs and learn how to live the rest of their lives handicapped. Over 100,000 people have been killed in the program that Heather was part of.

This is director Sonia Kennebeck’s first feature documentary and should be praised for its compassionate and penetrating human interviews with the Afghan people and the three whistleblowers and their families. The film is more cinematic that most ‘talking head’ docs, but then you can’t go wrong with heavyweight filmmakers like Erroll Morris and Wim Wenders as producers. Insolf Rudolph offers an emotional and unusual sound score enhanced by a song written by Soul for the closing credits.

Whistleblower Heather pleads at one point that “Afghans are humans, too. Everyone’s not a freakin’ terrorist.”

Attorney Jesselyn Radack was also featured in last year's Silenced doc, another important film bringing to light those daring souls willing to risk their families and careers to expose the wrongdoings of our government. Radack is a prominent lawyer defending committed whistleblowers, including Edward Snowden and the Daniel of this film, who may soon be arrested for espionage. In her cases she points out the failure of the drone program to distinguish civilians from militants. Since children and women can also carry weapons, it’s hard to identify from the sky the intent of people on the ground. Drones are a terrifying often indiscriminate threat from the sky and shouldn’t be used in the first place. Whistleblower Heather pleads at one point that “Afghans are humans, too. Everyone’s not a freakin’ terrorist.”

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War and violence take on new and frightening forms, especially when it relates to our own country. Do Not Resist, which won the Tribeca Film Festival Award for Best Documentary Feature, tells about the war that’s coming to America, ominously visualized by the militarization of our police forces. In the guise of preparing our country for terrorist attacks, it’s not coincidental that military equipment is now being used against protesters and our own civilians. Towns are buying surplus war tanks and heavy military gear, often to be used by SWAT teams on raids against such minimal crimes as pot smoking.

Although the film crew had been stationed in the city months before the fatal shootings, the film starts with the historical confrontation in Ferguson, showing the looming images of military vehicles and armor amassing in the night streets of a mid-American town. First time director Craig Atkinson, who was cameraman on Detropia, displays rare access to private institutions and individuals. Candid interviews with attendees of the Police Chief Convention in Florida, reveals the common held belief that increasing surveillance cameras is justified, by characterizing victims as either “Darth Vaders or Luke Skywalkers,” rationalizing that If they arrest a Luke – its just collateral damage. Atkinson adds “there’s also a presumption of guilt along with surveillance cameras.”

National Bird

The director also gains a privileged seat in a SWAT van as they make ‘no-call’ drug raids throughout Ferguson. In one case, after busting windows and tearing a house apart, frightening all the family members and arresting a young man, they eventually find a few flakes of marijuana in the bottom of a school bag. The new and frightening arrest methods across the country, especially in communities of color, show the encroaching militarization of America. MRAP trucks are being sold to small cities where no cases of violence even exist!

Atkinson explains the government appears to be transitioning from the failed War on Drugs to the also most likely failed War on Terror, both sharing an amorphous undefinable target. In one scene a government hearing takes place where the Secretary of Defense explains that police departments are being offered used and outmoded war gear, but then is shown that some items on the list are still being used by the military. And why would cities want bayonets?

One segment of the film covers a study that sets up different categories of risk for becoming a criminal – for example, in the Black community a woman has a 50% chance of raising a child who will end up in prison, prompting one woman officer to say “it’s good to catch criminals before they do it” – sort of like the ‘preemptive war’ concept.

The film leaves the viewer with a negative feeling that our country is going in the wrong direction. Militarizing the police force is creating war in our country. Keep pissing innocent people off and they will have no other choice but to defend themselves. Instead of spending money on prevention and health our country often chooses to depend on weapons and punishment. This powerful examination and indictment of the growing militarization of our police force is appropriately dedicated to two ex-prisoners, Dwight Hicks and Herbert Murray, who served many years in solitary confinement for crimes they didn’t commit.

bill meyer

Bill Meyer