Research – 5000 feet is the best

In the group tutorial with Emma Critchley she encouraged me to research the short film 5000 Feet is the Best by filmmaker Omer Fast which explores the life and experience of a drone pilot. Although the video itself is restaged with actors, it is based on a real life interview and there are some elements of this real life interview in there.

5000 Feet is the Best, 2011

To see the full video click here

  • The video doesn’t start as expected, it doesn’t easily introduce the viewer into what the concept is about
  • It establishes the viewer initially as this unwanted presence in the interview space in which the subject is being asked questions to which he provides cryptic, irritated responses
  • We get a notion of what the interview is about when the dynamic switches, we get a blurred out face and the audio from the real subject behind the film – he then describes why 5000 feet is the best for the drone
  • There is a sense of deja vu, we see the beginning scenes again but with a little more detail and with greater hindsight we can interpret it more effectively
  • There are stories or memories that appear irrelevant, but they are visualised and acted out in this film
  • We revert backwards and forwards from the real audio from the real drone pilot and the actor playing him in the interview
  • The visuals when the real drone pilot is speaking switches between his blurred out face, but mostly sweeping visuals filmed from either a plane or drone footage
  • He talks about the gap between his actions and the environment in which they are played out – he may not be personally harmed but it still affects him, the dynamic is that of a video game but he can’t actually switch it off and step away from it. The difference between him and a normal soldier is that he isn’t ‘in the trenches’, there is a distancing
  • There is a story acted out, of a family travelling in a car who come across a group of armed men burying an unknown object. They actually get bombed (we presume by a drone) and they are killed. This story is constantly narrated by the actor playing the drone pilot.
  • Then it switches to the real drone pilot who tells his story of the particular event; we just hear the audio from the drone pilot, the visuals is a view of Las Vegas from the sky filmed from a plane.
  • The film finishes with the actor playing the drone pilot, walking away from the interview. There are sirens in the background which the viewer would associate with emergency activity.
  • We are left thinking about the drone pilot and how he is responsible for killing people. But then the sirens remind me personally of the 911 attacks so I then try and balance out his actions with that of the terrorists who staged these attacks.

This piece is incredibly effective, despite the length being thirty minutes which is a long time for a viewer to commit and constantly engage with the content. The changing dynamic and structure of the film however counteracts this and works the draw to viewer in. The experience of watching this isn’t easy because the video itself isn’t linear, it constantly jumps between the re-enacted interview and the audio from the real one so we are constantly questioning what is ‘real’ and what isn’t. The concept behind the video isn’t revealed straight away so we are constantly searching for the ‘meaning’ behind this video and we latch on the to quote ‘5000 feet is the best’ because we can recognise this from the title.

Gradually as we are fed more information we start to understand the situation better, as the video progresses we hear the term ‘drone pilot’ used more often so we know what the video is actually about. The various anecdotes and stories acted out helps the viewer personally engage with the video and entices them in because the stories themselves are interesting and seem to be somewhat philosophical yet we can’t actually grasp a definitive moral from it. This essentially is the dynamic of the video, it is not commenting on whether drone technology is right or wrong, it just examines the life of the man who pilots one.

There are various attempts to address the dynamic of being a drone pilot, the interview in the video prompts this by asking what the difference is between  normal pilot and the subject being interviewed. However this isn’t exactly met with a helpful response as the drone pilot is clever enough to know what sort of response the viewer wants, he delivers the concept that he’s not ‘in the trenches’ with the soldiers as there is a distance in his practice. In the real audio from the drone pilot he compares his work to that of a video game; he is accessing a different world through a screen in which he can move around and interact however he can’t step away from this world like a game player can because his actions are cause and effect and he is responsible for them.

This distance between the person, the screen and their actions is a concept I want to explore in my final major project. I believe that this documentary is really effective at achieving this because the nonlinear structure reflects the complexities involved with the job of being a drone pilot. The dynamic and structure of this documentary is definitely an approach I should consider when approaching my final major piece. To conceal the concept behind the video and gradually reveal it has proven to be a captivating and though provoking approach, I will definitely consider using this technique when producing my piece.

Another interesting element in this piece is the aspect of privacy, the real footage from the interview with the drone pilot is blurred so you can’t see his face and you never know his name. The only real element is his voice however that too could have been altered slightly to protect his identity. This reflects the controversial issues surrounding the job type however it is also potentially a way for people to reveal more as they know their answers can’t be directly associated with their identity. If I am to interview people about a personal subject I either need to make them feel completely comfortable and perhaps compromise with the questions, or I could assure that they have privacy and this could allow me to investigate a little bit more forcefully or personally than I might have done without the element of censorship.

Overall there are many different aspects that are successful about this video; I enjoyed watching it but it definitely wasn’t easy, it demanded your full attention. I would like my piece to demand attention in the same way, as it is about a subject I believe is important to consider. I want it to reflect the urgency I convey in my Final Major Project Proposal, as we established in the Phonar module we need to make work that solves a problem rather than just producing work to be pretty. I have evaluated that a nonlinear structure is effective in keeping the attention from the audience and that concealing the concept can add to this effect. Privacy is a notion I really need to address, however I feel it would be incredibly ironic if I produced a video on anonymity and I concealed the identity of those being interviewed. However maybe that irony would be appropriate and it would demonstrate the concept I am trying to reflect; that the online disinhibition effect causes people to become detached from their humanitarian emotions like responsibility and guilt.


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