Omer Fast: 5,000 Feet is the Best | Review

Imperial War Museum   |  29 July – 29 September 2013

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On 4 April 2010, a video uploaded to the WikiLeaks website gripped the hearts and minds of millions across the world. The video, familiarly titled Collateral Murder, captured the shooting and killing of 11 individuals in a public square in Baghdad. Two of those killed were Reuters’ employees, renowned photojournalist Namir Noor-Eldeen and driver/camera assistant Saeed Chmagh; the others were civilians. An unarmed group of adults and children, arriving at the scene in a minivan, attempted to transport the wounded to safety; they too were fired upon. Recorded by the in-built video camera of the Apache attack helicopter, the video includes an audio recording of the internal discussion between the US soldiers before, during and after the shooting. Having been crudely compared by many to a video-game commentary, the video is nevertheless a ruthless awakening to the reality or the relationship between what we see on screen and bare life. Both the film and reactions to it have caused outrage, and Bradley Manning’s recent sentencing for releasing this video and other such confidential information, has divided public opinion. However, hard facts and documentary footage alone are not enough for most of us to reconcile our emotive response to such urgent contemporary issues. It seems apt that the Imperial War Museum’s new IWM Contemporary space should be launched on the same week as Manning’s sentencing, and even more apt that the inaugural exhibition is of Omer Fast’s 5,000 Feet is the Best.

Taking its title from the optimum operational flight altitude of a US Air Force MQ-1 Predator drone, the film centres around a series of interviews Fast conducted with a former flight operator suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Located in a dingy Las Vegas hotel room, the saturated and tinny clips of the original interviews – the officer’s face blurred out – are cut between multiple cinematic re-enactments of the conversation. The drone operator enters the cramped room and positions himself on the bed. ‘Everything OK?’ the interviewer asks. ‘Yeah, I’m OK’ the pilot replies, awkwardly shifting on the bed. ‘I didn’t realise you’d be filming.’ ‘We can stop,’ says the interviewer, ‘if you are uncomfortable.’ ‘Yeah, right,’ the pilot replies. He reaches for some pills, swallowing dry; the interviewer begins: ‘What’s the difference between you and a real pilot?’ The pilot continually leaves the hotel room, where we watch him stalling in the corridor, returning again and again to repeat the same conversation; each time recounting a slightly different version and with different, seemingly unrelated, anecdotes. Meshed together with documentary footage of war zones from the air – reminiscent of those frantically circulating the internet since Manning’s controversial leaks – picturesque Afghani and Pakistani vistas, suburban Nevada and glimmering Las Vegas lights, it is easy to sit through the 30-minute looped film several times, unaware where it begins or ends; each time spotting new differences, recognising subtle nuances.

Exploring how the use of drones is rapidly altering the politics, principles and personal

experience of conflict, the film exposes the complexities of the frontline-at-a-distance that the pilot operates within; every day actively working within the heart of the war zone, impacting on the lives and futures of numerous Afghanis. Yet having spent months watching his targets, being physically situated thousands of miles away safely on home soil, has not sheltered the soldier from PTSD. Fraught with contingency and error, the film demands that we reassess the relationship between assumed knowledge and sovereign power.

Beyond the mental stability of the individual solider or the unavoidable contingency of human error, the film highlights what culturally we are perhaps most complacent about: that we are all implicated in the daily suffering at the hands of those individuals that we legally allow to kill on our behalf. Reminiscent of the story of Namir Noor-Eldeen and his party, the pilot’s tragic retelling of an ill-fated Afghan family day-trip is re-presented with a white-American cast, spotlighting the West’s engraining of, or at best complacency towards, global biopolitics. The vignette questions the disparity between perceptions of and the reality of distance in a world where drone warfare operates; our presumed safety in the West while war continues in far off lands through our TV screens and the viewer’s own complacency in allowing a global Agambien state of exception.

The film was premiered at the Venice Biennale in 2011, and has since been shown in multiple contemporary art venues, however its display within the broader context of the Imperial War Museum is a significant shift for the work. Until what has recently been termed the ‘documentary turn’, it has been widely assumed that art plays an emotive role, independent of didacticism. Meanwhile, the museum space is presumed to play the opposite end of the knowledge cognitive spectrum, mediating the complexities of history. The confused reaction to Manning’s trial seems a perfect illustration of why this hybrid space is important. Unlike traditional museum displays, which neatly unravel a situation, 5,000 Feet is the Best seeks only to portray the complexity and unpredictability of the situation, leaving questions unanswered and sowing the seeds for many more. Contemporary art in the museum environment plays a vital role beyond visualising or illustrating information; it is one that can agitate and instigate debate.

The IWM, as with many other museums in the UK, has a longstanding history of showing contemporary art. However, the launch of IWM Contemporary is a significant acknowledgment of the wider cultural impact that art has in understanding our contemporary context. At the time of writing this, the suspected US drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan are being hotly debated in the press, as is Manning’s sentencing; IWM Contemporary is – I hope – a signifier of not only a growing national cultural consciousness, but also an acknowledgement that art’s contemplative role is vital to our understanding of our wider global biopolitical condition.