Five Thousand Feet Is Best

So what do you want to talk about?//

[Beeping noise]

Are you alright?//

What’s the difference between you and someone who sits in an airplane?//

There’s no difference. We do the same job.//

But you’re not a real pilot.//

So what? You’re not a real journalist. I know what you’re thinking about. You’re thinking about bodies and places. Train drivers in the 1880s…/
,,           ,,          ,,  bodies and trenches. World War One…/ 
,,           ,,          ,, Kitty hawk, The Red Barron…

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 based in Las Vegas and working 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 five thousand feet.

As well as discussing his job, the operator talks of his current life. We learn that he has trouble sleeping – he plays video games for hours at night to unwind; yet the games have been the same ones, at the same level, for four years now. Like the video games that recur, forever the same, the film’s structure contains almost identical sequences and statements, suggesting an inability to process trauma on the part of the operator.

We see only the blurred form of the operator, and his voice is sometimes indistinct too (indeed, subtitles would have been of help in these parts of the film). For the large part Fast shows us reconstructions of the interview and memories, using actors and a more cinematic aesthetic. The re-enacted interview takes place inside a Las Vegas hotel room, the operator awkwardly propped-up on the bed, as if ambushed there by Diane Arbus for his portrait. There is no daylight or windows, and when the operator returns from gasping at a cigarette in the equally claustrophobic corridor, he becomes disorientated and knocks at the wrong door. The camera has been turned to point in the other direction so that we feel confused too; the space is identical to the left and the right.

Back in the room, we hear a painful beeping that is clearly experienced by the operator and not the interviewer. At each beep, the operator winces, and the interviewer asks him, ‘you alright?’ This question is just one of the recurring ones that structure the film. The actor operator is defensive, while the genuine one is more confessional: ‘there was such a loss of life as a direct result of me’, he says. Despite his frankness, we know that the operator broke off the interview with Fast, and often diverted the discussion to anecdotes from his current life policing the casino. His excuse was that ‘we tell these stories to make life a little less boring’, but it is clear that the stories offer an escape from memories and guilt rooted far from Las Vegas. This evasion technique becomes integral to Fast’s reconstructed footage, the interview constantly digressing into vignettes of casino fraud and robbery. Even in these episodes we encounter inconsistency, for example, in the story of a train robbery, we follow a black man up until the moment he gets caught. There is a jump cut back to the interview hotel room and the operator snaps ‘I didn’t say he was black. Who brought race into it?’ Then we jump back to the re-enactment, but the man acting the robber is now white.  Fast is constantly provoking the audience’s certainty and empathy.

In addition to a constant undermining of what has been said, the film contains much ambiguity. As the operator describes a roadside bombing mission, we see an American family pack into a car and embark on a road trip. Leaving suburbia, they soon drive through terrain that might, it suddenly seems, be Middle Eastern. The voiceover offers no clarification; ‘In these parts of the country, it’s hard to get lost…’

Likewise, Fast interweaves aerial views from Las Vegas (including its version of Venice’s St Mark’s and Rialto, a disorientating experience in itself for those watching the film at the Biennale in Venice, Italy) with military aerial surveillance footage from the Middle East. This juxtaposition of pleasure and military flights only becomes more uncomfortable as we realise the American car trip narrative is about to collide with the Drone operation one. Thus the family’s car is caught in the fire from five thousand feet, and as the smoke clears, we see that its occupants are motionless and bloody. 
Then, in a characteristic twist, Fast has the family get up from their slumped positions, clamber out of the wrecked car, and walk off set, exposing themselves as actors in the story. We watch, feeling duped and insecure – by now completely unable to trust what is shown us, and yet equally unable to feel nothing.

Fast’s 2007 film, The Casting, is a similar exploration of truth and reportage, this time of the American military presence in Iraq. Viewers are faced with one screen, and have to decide which side of it to watch: one side contains footage of Fast’s interview with a soldier, and the other, a re-enactment of the events discussed in the interview. The Casting becomes more complex, however, when we learn that the interview is also a re-enactment – as with Five Thousand Feet Is Best, we wonder what, if anything, we can trust. For a 2003 film, Spielberg’s List, Fast interviewed extras from Schindler’s List, many of who had lived through the Holocaust before re-enacting it in Spielberg’s film. The interviewees were thus both ‘real’ and actors. With this project too, an investigation of authenticity and witnessing was conducted through the context of film and its relation to trickery.