by Mark W. Scala
Chief Curator, Frist Center for the Visual Arts
In his 2011 video 5,000 Feet Is the Best, Omer Fast opens a window onto one of the most contentious aspects of the war on terror: the use of missile-firing drones, which are controlled by operators thousands of miles from the site of impact. This technology is touted by advocates for its precision, reach, and for keeping its pilots out of harm’s way. At the same time, it has been criticized for occasional catastrophic errors, with questions being raised about the morality of such remote mechanistic warfare and the possibility that the technology could as easily be used against us.
In this video, Fast captures these ambiguities, segueing smoothly between fiction, memory, and reality to animate that space in our minds and our culture in which conceptions of right and wrong, risk and gain, remorse and absolution struggle to co-exist. The film is based on two interviews he held with a former Predator drone sensor operator who was based in Las Vegas, a half-world away from the conflict. The operator, shown on the screen as a blurry face, tells about the training, logistics, and psychological impact of drone warfare.
As a counterpoint to this anonymous figure, Fast hired an actor to play the part of a drone operator, whom he ‘interviewed’ in a dark hotel room. In addition to reflecting on the nature of drone warfare, the actor tells three stories. The first two are about people who employ deception in pursuit of criminal goals—no obvious connection to drone warfare other than to evoke the porous cloth between fiction and reality, which is also the underlying theme of the film itself, as the actor embodies emotional intensity, in contrast to the more matter-of-fact testimony of the drone operator.
The explosive third story holds the key to the entire narrative. This is a parable in which a middle-class American family leaves home, perhaps outside of Las Vegas, for a drive in the country. They pass through a checkpoint guarded by Chinese soldiers, an occupying force that is the reverse mirror of the U.S. occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. The family drives deeper into the desert until they encounter a small group of armed men digging a hole in the road in which to place an improvised explosive device. The men are described by the actor as shepherds or tribesmen, such as might be found in Iraq, but we see them to be Americans, fighting against the occupying power. The family drives slowly past at just the moment that a missile hits from a Chinese drone above. The message is clear—in different circumstances, the resistance could be ours; the collateral damage could be us.
Fast’s simulation of a documentary mode, which weaves a story at once factual and metaphorical, seems fitting in the context of the ‘unreal’ clarity of the view from 5,000 feet high. Even from this height, the operator is able to tell what shoes someone is wearing, or whether a person is smoking. At the same time, the bird’s eye view flattens space and depth, making the image diagrammatic. From a mile above, the tops of people’s heads are like icons on the screen. Indeed, the actual operator compares his work to playing a computer game, with a clear split between the mechanics of his job and the psychological trauma that comes with realizing the devastation he has caused.
Omer Fast knows war is complex and does not moralize. He only asks questions and allows others to speak, then reconstructs their testimony into a fictional meta-narrative. In the end, 5,000 Feet Is the Best is not an indictment of a particular weapon. It is a probing consideration of the psychological effects of its use on the user and the implications for the society that accepts, or turns a blind eye to, its ambiguities.