Currently in the middle of a huge renovation project, London’s Imperial War Museum is running a skeleton display of exhibitions which includes a series of special displays and commissions under the banner of Imperial War Museum Contemporary. The first of these commissions is Omer Fast’s 5,000 Feet is the Best a thirty minute film about drone warfare and specifically about the pilots who operate these nightmarish machines from their bases thousands of miles away.
The story behind the making of the film is quite interesting in itself because it reveals the extent of the secrecy which still shrouds the drone program (they are after all routinely deployed in countries like Pakistan with whom the US is not even at war). Fast advertised online for drone operators, and had most of his adverts shut down by the FBI. Finally however he was able to arrange to meet a former pilot. This filmed interview, with the pilot’s face heavily blurred, forms the first of three narrative strands that make up the film.
The second strand is a series of repetitious excerpts from this interview, this time dramatised by actors. These take place in a strange and rather unpleasant hotel, where there is no daylight, and with long claustrophobic corridors that disappear off seemingly into infinity, perhaps intending to echo the inside of an aircraft, or the control pods where the drone pilots work. The final strand of is a series of pieces of aerial footage of locations in the United States, sometimes tracking in slowly on a building, at other times following a child riding a bike down a suburban road. The film flits between these strands, creating a disconcertingly disjointed narrative that attempts perhaps to emulate the pilot’s experience of fighting in a foreign war from the very heart of the US.
The most interesting part of the film are the insights offered by the interview with the pilot. In much mainstream media drone warfare is characterised in terms of computer games, a cliché the accuracy of which is both confirmed and dismissed. For example the pilot explains how some of the operators go home at the end of the day and play computer games before bed, a bizarre image. At the same time he contradicts the image of drone pilots as spotty nerds disconnected from the brutality and mayhem they unleash on strangers thousands of miles away.
For example he talks lucidly about the challenges of trying to avoid killing innocent people, and how he rationalises it by telling himself if he wasn’t doing it someone else would be, someone less skilled, and more likely to kill the innocent. He also discusses his experience of post-trumatic stress, still strangely a risk of the job despite the fact he is never directly in harm’s way. He also reveals that like much modern military activity the job is often profoundly boring, for example one assignment required him to keep watch on the same house for ten hours a day for a month.
While this interview is fascinating, If I’m honest the other bits of the film feel rather clumsy and awkward, as if Fast didn’t really get enough footage of the interview and is rather desperately trying to fill the gaps. At one point, in an attempt I suppose to really bring home the awfulness of drone warfare, the narrative moves to following a nice American family transplanted into an alternative reality America which is occupied by a foreign power (China judging by the characters and uniforms). Needless to say they end up being killed by a Chinese drone when it attacks three American insurgents who are burying an IED on a remote road. It’s shocking, but in a ‘Game over, restart level’ sort of way. 5,000 Feet is the Best is screening at the Imperial War Museum until 29th September 2013.