In Focus

Omer Fast, Five Thousand Feet is the Best

Omer Fast’s film Five Thousand Feet Is Best takes its name from an excerpt of an interview between Fast and a Predator Drone aerial vehicle operator, now living and working in Las Vegas as a casino security guard. The operator recalls his jobs in Afghanistan and Pakistan, activating the unmanned plane to fire at civilians and militia from the optimum height of 5,000 feet. The video is based on two meetings between Fast and the drone operator, which were recorded in a Las Vegas hotel in September 2010. On camera, the drone operator agreed to discuss the technical aspects of his job and his daily routine. Off camera, and off the record, he briefly described recurring incidents in which the unmanned plane fired at both militants and civilians, and the psychological difficulties he experienced as a result, before breaking the interview off.

Five Thousand Feet is the Best is Fast’s cinematic retelling of this veteran’s story; as the film unfolds, the viewer slowly realizes that the character being questioned in a dark hotel room (the actor David O’Hare) by an off-camera interviewer (Fast) is retelling the same stories the drone operator told Fast. Instead of looking for the appropriate news accounts or documentary footage to augment this redacted story, Fast has constructed an elaborately detailed, seemingly fictional account—one that is deliberately miscast and misplaced—to retell three alternately compelling and grueling accounts from the original interview session. These reenactments in the hotel room become the hinge of three complex and recursive stories. As the actor recounts these narratives, the film cuts to striking, cinematic recreations of the tales being retold in the actor's voice.

Each of the three segments is prompted by a fictional scenario, in which the actor leaves the hotel room where he is being interviewed and has a random encounter in the hallway (a strategy perhaps borrowed from Bryan Singer’s 1995 film, The Usual Suspects ). Returning to the room, and the interview, the actor begins a new tale each time, creating a sense of déjà vu, even while presenting vastly different vignettes. Told in quick flashbacks, the stories form a circular plot that nevertheless returns fitfully to the voice and blurred face of the drone pilot - and to his unfinished story. Each one is gripping, and has the elusive, circular logic of truths uncovered by negotiating displacement, lies, and evasion.

One of the many tensions in the film is the disruption created between its visual lushness and the bleak reality of its intention. Several of the segments are filmed with extreme technical virtuosity, employing sophisticated tracking shots and vertiginous aerial photography. In one particularly memorable scene in the film, the camera picks up a moving object in the desert and begins to track it; as the scene unfolds and the camera swoops in from the sky, the object takes form: a young boy riding his bicycle on the trails. Abruptly the desert turns into suburban tract housing and the boy navigates perfectly paved and symmetrical streets on his way safely home. The distance between untamed wilderness and cozy domesticity, we are made aware, is virtually indistinguishable, now.

At this point in the film one becomes uncomfortably and acutely aware that we are no doubt in the position of the Drone Operator, who reveals that soldiers call the “beautiful” laser beams, cast for a split second by drones onto their targets, the “light of God.” The experience of space and time here seems irrevocably altered. Indeed, when Fast asks what the difference is between the drone pilot and someone who actually sits in the cockpit and fires, his subject responds, “There is no difference.” Fast’s articulation of the intersection of video game culture, slick Hollywood narrative, government concealment, and the privatization of warfare could not be more relevant. As the country continues its decade-long adventure in Iraq and Afghanistan, Five Thousand Feet is the Best provides an elliptical and haunting account of its cost, while eschewing the opportunity to moralize or judge.

Adapted from

Jeffrey Grove, DMA unpublished material, 2011.