Omer Fast’s work requires its viewers to step into ethically and politically ambivalent crossfire—it’s messy. An Israeli-born, US-raised video artist, Fast is known for bringing the personal to the sociopolitical. Often utilizing re-enactments, mock interviews, and both fictional and non-fictional characters and stories, Fast’s work explores issues of identity performance, memory and language, work, and family.
Fast’s two newest films, Remainder (2015) and Continuity (2016), represent a departure in his work. He not only steps into the feature film arena—Fast’s videos, up until recently, have mostly been exhibited within galleries, looped on monitors or projection screens—but he refines his investigations.
Continuity follows a family reuniting with their son, Daniel, following his tour in Afghanistan—but the story devolves and darkens as the homecoming is repeated, reenacted with different young men playing the role of “Daniel.” Remainder, an adaptation of the 2005 novel by British writer Tom McCarthy, tells the story of a London man’s attempt to reconstruct his identity after he is hit by an unidentified object. Both works are less interested in a formal or thematic blurring of truth and fiction than in what happens if we accept such terms as fluid.
Fast’s earlier works, 500 Feet is the Best and The Casting, used a hybridized approach, mixing documentary interviews with fictional subjects and storylines. At the center of these braided narratives is Fast’s doppelgänger: “Omer Fast,” a documentary filmmaker interviewing subjects within the work. Fast sees this doppelgänger as a container for his own anxieties and ambivalence related to telling the stories of others, the politics of representation, and the negotiation of power between subject and interviewer.
Fast’s work is often described as blurring reality and fiction, either as critique journalism or as form of media literacy, a condemnation of our “post-truth” media landscape. But in Continuity and Remainder, the documentary components and its director, the doppelgänger, have disappeared. With this departure, Fast opts out of the post-truth debate. He’s not interested in right or wrong, truth or fiction—these are red herrings, distractions. Instead, Fast is interested in the spaces in between, the messiness. It’s this messiness that Fast discusses in this recent conversation.
Dylan Redford: You’ve spoken about your work inviting a certain “productive confusion.” What is “productive confusion”?
Omer Fast: Although the subjects I’m drawn to are pretty simple—work, family—the storytelling I use is often not very straightforward. This is definitely the case in Continuity, which at first seems like your run-of-the-mill middle-class family drama, until certain scenes start repeating inexplicably, with different young men taking over the role of the son, who keeps coming home as a different person. The confusion this initially causes is meant to encourage a shift in attention: instead of looking for a linear, naturalistic, or dramatic rationale, the work encourages you to rethink the social roles and family relations that are represented. I like to think that this is productive because it’s confusion as cause and not as effect. What exactly is being produced, I’m less sure about. I guess it’s knowledge of some kind.
Redford: In your previous works (Everything that Rises Must Converge, 5,000 Feet is the Best, The Casting) there’s often a doppelgänger, a stand-in, performing as the documentary filmmaker within the work. In both Continuity and Remainder, this doppelgänger has disappeared from the frame. Where did he go? What was his purpose?
Fast: He didn’t go anywhere. He’s still there, always the same but different. In Remainder, it’s not a character but reality itself that doubles up. At the start of the film, the protagonist has an accident, which leaves him isolated and blank but unexpectedly wealthy. He tries to find his way back to normal life by having his few banal memories recreated at great cost and in minute detail. The more convincing his copy becomes, the more seductive it gets, especially since it’s completely controllable. In Continuity, the double is the prodigal son, who reappears as a different man in successive scenes, a strange fact that doesn’t seem to bother his parents. Again, in both cases the purpose is not to confuse reality with fiction, but to look at social relations as a system of codes that require a great deal of pretense and role-playing.
Redford: Why did you locate Continuity within a middle-class domestic context?
Fast: Continuity was originally commissioned for the documenta exhibition, but part of the financing came from a German broadcaster called 3Sat, which got the TV rights to the work and promised to show it. At the time, I thought somewhat nostalgically of TV as the ultimate medium for and about the middle class and wanted to make my ultimate middle-class melodrama. I clearly failed in this quest. As far as I know, the film was broadcast once on a Tuesday at midnight to an audience of unemployed insomniacs, which might be my perfect demographic. Nevertheless, I think the work succeeds as a portrait of a middle-class family with peculiarly middle-class neuroses, desires and foibles.
Redford: Continuity hints, in its cinematic language and performance, to the daytime television soap opera genre. Was this intentional?
Fast: Very much. As soon as I had the concept down, I started watching lots of daytime TV in German. It may not have completely contaminated my work, but it certainly helped firm up some archetypes: the long-suffering matriarch who pulls everyone’s strings, the choleric husband whose outbursts mask his perversions, the prodigal son who rebels and keeps coming back, ever in need of his parents’ approval. We should mention Fassbinder here as a reference, maybe also Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, itself a masterpiece of modernist melodrama…
Redford: And what was the thought process behind casting multiple “Daniel” characters in Continuity?
Fast: The story has a simple premise, which reads a bit like a fable: a middle-aged couple has lost their son and are repeatedly engaging young men to replace him. None of the replacements is right, though. One looks the part but is too insecure, another is plenty secure but not bright enough, and another is highly bright but not very honest (and the nearly perfect one annoyingly dies in a car accident). The abrupt appearance and disappearance of the young men in the couple’s otherwise sedentary life makes it feel like this has been going on for a long time and has become something of a routine exercise. In fact, it is possible the couple will not only never find the right substitute, but that they may not want to find him. Like savvy consumers, they know not to place too much faith in commodities and are pleased with the passing thrill of novelty and discovery. In the process, we find out what makes their marriage enduring and special.
Redford: Switching films. You’ve described Tom, the protagonist in Remainder, as a type of Robinson Crusoe character. How are these two characters similar? How does this comparison provide social/political/historical context for the film?
Fast: Robinson Crusoe recreates his idealized environment in obsessive detail on a remote island and becomes both its ruler and prisoner. Remainder’s protagonist is also a castaway, but instead of an exotic island he winds up in his very own London flat, marooned and obsessed by his past, which he also recreates in minute detail. Both protagonists are liminal figures, very much like artists, caught between a reality they find terribly lacking and their obsessive pursuit to augment or correct it. Defoe’s book must of course be read in its 18th-century colonial context, whereas McCarthy’s unfolds in a hyper-gentrifying millennial London. We should also mention J.G. Ballard’s wonderful book, Concrete Island, as one missing link between Robinson Crusoe and Remainder.
Redford: Last question: how does your practice configure trust between the performers/subjects, the viewers, and yourself?
Fast: When I ask people to meet for an interview, I am often as clueless about the work that will result as they are. I always explain what my intentions are, to the best of my knowledge, and that’s as much as I can or am willing to do. The final work might contain segments from our interview, either as fragmentary evidence running counter to a fictional narrative, or they might be completely consumed and reshaped by that fiction. When I engage performers or actors, the process is somewhat different. Like the documentary interviewees, we are also creative collaborators but our relationship is defined by their self-awareness as—at least partly—fictional characters. They will ask me questions that interview subjects will never ask: What’s my motivation? Why am I doing this? Who am I? Our discussion is typically more ambivalent as we’re more conscious of how role-playing can aid or imperil us. We don’t really need to tell each other the truth as long as we believe in each other’s pretense. Finally, my engagement with viewers is the most abstract and least personal. We hardly ever meet, and the work is a kind of prosthetic for making contact between us. Trust can only exist in as much as their interest and patience allows.