A Scientist at the Movies
Reviews by Greg Paris
Title: Encounter in Ruwa: The Ariel School Sighting
Date Viewed: 6/12/09
Director: Randall Nickerson
Producer: Dominique Callimanopulos, on behalf of the John E. Mack Institute
The Review: Recently I had the chance to join 100-120 other Cantabrigians in a small, warm, poorly ventilated, overcrowded (SRO) room -- equipped with some fiendishly designed and horribly uncomfortable instruments of torture, a.k.a. folding chairs -- to screen the draft digital rough-cut of a new documentary, Encounter in Ruwa: The Ariel School Sighting. The occasion was not only a premiere, but also a fund-raising event to solicit money to finish the film, with ample opportunity for the audience to engage both the director and producer in Q&A. The film was curious -- not bad, not great, clearly incomplete and still in search of itself. The ideas in and around the film are interesting, and I'm sure some of the audience left with lots to think about -- even if it concerned UFOs, alien abduction and outcast Harvard professors.
It is an act of bravery to release an unfinished work to an unknown public, and the director and producers are to be lauded for this decision. It is my hope that this review -- likewise unusual, since its object is a first draft -- is interpreted in the same open spirit, as critical analysis and positive suggestions about where the film-making process might go.
At one level, Encounter at Ruwa is a massive compilation of eyewitness testimony in support of a cluster of African UFO sightings, including a possible alien encounter by several young children at a private school outside the capital city of Harare. But like any good documentary, it presents at multiple levels. Key to the original 1994 interviews was John Mack, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, who gathered this film to support his interest in the psychology of alien abduction; but the footage sat in storage, unused, until after his death in 2004. The story would probably have been forgotten but for Mack's involvement. Renewed interest in the Ariel events sent one of Mack's personal friends (the director of this film, under the aegis of the John Mack Institute) off to South Africa and Zimbabwe to both collect archival material and interview additional witnesses. As a rough-cut, there is minimal story arc and no conclusions -- the interviews are placed as data in front of the audience for their own synthesis and collation.
There are several ways to examine and critique this documentary.
As a film construct (cinematography, composition, editing):
To its credit, the filming does not suffer greatly from The Blair Witch phenomenon: the vagaries and sickening jolts of handheld photography. One or two shots like this, included to give the impression that we were "on the march," were more than enough.
The majority of footage is interviews with witnesses, so the majority of the film is a parade of talking heads -- some from the original 1994 interviews by Mack himself, some from the more recent (2008) investigations of the current director. This could get a little boring and repetitious, but some of the witnesses are curious simply as individuals, so it doesn't drag too much -- although the editing might be tighter, especially if more are to be included in the final cut.
However, this particular digital projection was flawed by what appeared to be a form of anamorphic distortion: scrunching a wide-angle image into narrower screen real estate by horizontally compressing the left and right quarter wings. This made for a very disturbing, almost nauseating, effect whenever the camera was panning or tracking -- which, luckily, was not often. But perhaps I am inordinately sensitive to visual stimuli for motion sickness, since my wife was unaffected and able to ignore this phenomenon. I hope this was simply an artifact of the viewing environment.
As a documentary:
The message of Ruwa is either unclear, undefined or incompletely scoped out. This is not necessarily a fault, but simply a consequence of (so far) insufficient time and energy. The work is not yet finished. But from this version one might imagine several different directions in which a specific message might be developed:
•About John Mack as iconoclast -- This seems like a major part of the catalyst driving this film, but is almost completely missing from this cut. Mack was a fascinating individual with many interests, a Pulitzer-prize winning author of a Lincoln biography, and a specialist in psychology who in later years began focusing on the alien abduction phenomenon -- much to the chagrin of his Harvard colleagues. His work and interests informed the creation of the John E. Mack Institute -- to explore the frontiers of human experience. He was a major player in investigating the Ariel School sightings, coordinating (along with the film's producer, Dominique Callimanopulos) the interviews, and came to think this particular cluster was of paramount importance.
•About a particularly notable UFO encounter -- In the years since their occurrence, the Ariel School sightings have assumed the status of a major, high-credibility sighting of UFO craft and a very public alien encounter. Even though it garnered minimal coverage in Africa at the time, it appears to be well documented, and the eyewitness reports from multiple age-groups and locations form a remarkably consistent story. Although famous within the UFO community, focusing the documentary on the encounter would raise its visibility to the general public -- if that's what the Institute wants to do.
•About the opinions & investigations of Mack not into UFOs but into the workings of the human psyche -- This is where it initially looked like it might go when we viewed a short 5-minute trailer that included snippets of Mack speaking to a group of South African psychologists at the time of the Ruwa encounters, footage currently missing from the rough-cut. At that time (1994), in his opening comments, it seemed that he was not looking at such events as qualia, but as tools to provide insight into how the human mind worked, how it interpreted certain evidence, how it recorded, forgot, or transmuted memories. Perhaps this is a snapshot of his state of mind, and the status of insight -- and if so, it would anchor an interesting arc illustrating the changes in his perspective and interpretation over time.
•About the personal journey of a young director & friend of Mack, a sort of quest to Zimbabwe -- It is only in this category that I can understand editing to include introductory shots of airplane wings, rain-dropped portholes, aerial shots of African countryside, and archetypal animal shots establishing the situation in a decidedly foreign country.
What the film could become, if done carefully, is an intricate interlinking of each of these themes. I'd like to see the focus outline the journey of Mack's mind as he developed his concepts, revised them in the light of new evidence or events, perhaps centering on the Ruwa encounter as an cogent example of how his concepts evolved to incorporate these new observations -- becoming a touchstone for the entire community and phenomenon of sightings. It's not there yet, and this structure would depend strongly on additional material of which there were minimal clues -- such as interviews with (or presentations by) Mack himself over the time his ideas evolved, voiceover readings from his writings, etc. Such perspective could weave together the various threads into an harmonious whole.
As an unexplained event:
One way of interpreting the film is as straightforward documentation and reportage -- this is what seems to have happened (timeline, geography, people), here are eyewitness interviews, isn't it odd? However, this is probably the model least like what we saw, and not the obvious direction in which it might evolve. It doesn't take a plethora of interviews, hammering the point of consistency, to arrive merely at the announcement of a "ten day wonder". And to give it its due, this is unlikely to be the message the John Mack Institute would send.
But there are several directions, messages or threads that are (so far) missing, and their omission would doom the film to be considered one-sided, biased and unbalanced. These include:
•A search for additional objective data -- 1994 was not the dark ages, and ample records exist of satellite imagery from the time, both public and nationally confidential. If one or more luminous large objects were located in a limited geographic area, across a period of 2-3 days, then there might be independent corroboration from orbiting cameras in their default modes, without requiring retargeting. It would be interesting to contact both commercial sources and file for FIA (Freedom of Information Act) documents from the US government to see if any orbital overflights may have inadvertently captured information of interest.
•The nature of evidence, particularly the erratic, incomplete and generally abysmal character of people as real-time witnesses -- Consistency in stories is one thing, but the widespread use of identical phrases, the same distinctive and unusual wording -- "as tall as a 6th grader; putting thoughts into my head about technology" -- is surprising. I will grant that the circumstances surrounding isolated, consistent graphic drawings do not admit to simple explanation. If you are a na•ve audience, then the repeated citation of consistent, corroborative descriptions, phrases and stories (as one sees throughout the rough-cut and the trailer), would seem to lend credibility to the evidence. It all seems so consistent, so it must be true. But if you are informed about the vagaries of human observation and memory, of just how bad people are as witnesses, then this notable consistency of phrase and event simply becomes suspicious. Not necessarily suspicious of intent, of fraud, of deception or of outright fabrication -- but suspicious that other explanations from contemporary culture and the heterodyning story-telling traits of imaginative children. It is on this point that you may see my personal connection into this screening, this film and the events on screen -- I have a long-time fascination with the nature of evidence, and what might constitute proof of a particular point of science, an opinion or explanation. It turns on whether incontrovertible evidence is possible, and whether truth is absolute, or simply asymptotic, incremental convergence. This would be a relevant question to pursue in the context of Ruwa.
•Skeptical alternatives and explanations -- If one intent is to provide a balanced documentary, then in addition to interviewing a MUFON advocate, one might also identify and engage cooperative members of the skeptical community. These individuals have likely developed a set of questions and investigative techniques that have been applied to events and encounters similar to this across the past several decades, and might provide a collection of background explanations for some common observations. Perhaps it is not the intent of the producers to be balanced, or they perceive that the resultant documentary will eventually be balanced without this type of input and commentary. But as a scientist I would like to see certain points countered with questions. Is there any objective (satellite) data available? What is the organization of primary school in Zimbabwe around the time of apartheid, and how were students at different levels sequestered in class or playground? What exposure did the students (as well as adults) have to contemporary culture in the form of television (e.g., X-Files) or books (e.g., Whitley Streiber) or film (any science fiction entry)?
And there are some inevitable problems and concerns:
•The structure of science and the nature of the scientific process -- One possible pitfall this film may fall into (as the editing proceeds) is presenting an amalgam of evidence as proof convergent. This can become an insidious parody of science, unnoticed as such unless you are looking for it. If you add together sufficient consistent or mutually supporting statements, assume or transform these into a form of data, then a sketchy form of logic emerges where the evidence becomes (or is presented as) fact from which subsequent logic can be reasoned -- whereas in reality the resultant structure is an unstable house of cards lacking almost completely in any scaffold of logic and rigor. I've seen this frequently in many (semi-)popular books that present credulous approaches to (for example) the interpretation of archaeological artefacts, the existence of Atlantis, or global maps descended from unknown prehistoric cultures -- throw some observations together and whatever structure emerges from the accumulated pile of tidbits constitutes self-proof of both existence and truth. This is not science, nor even an approximation of how science is done, but has emerged as a not uncommon misconception of scientific proof by some science-inexperienced writers. Engaging, perhaps; entertaining, often; science, no. This documentary walks a tightrope in its presentation of eyewitness evidence, because it is only a small step before it falls into this trap.
•The premiere as an event in itself -- This screening was held in the center of an incredibly rich academic setting, an epicenter of intellectual prowess, and thus probably attended not only by local film buffs and quiet members of fringe abductee community but also by scientists and clinicians -- people who think for a living. So I expected a bit more of my fellow Cambridge attendees -- more intelligent questions, more insight, more patience, less hype and awe. I guess I'll attribute it to end-of-week exhaustion exacerbated by torturous seating discomfort.
Whatever your opinion or stance, it's worth encouraging the completion of this documentary. The film is scheduled for completion by December 2009. Feel free to contact the John E. Mack Institute (a 501c3 nonprofit organization) for information about progress and to contribute.
No, this film is not in the theatres or multiplexes near you, nor will it be for some time. I'd start looking for it in small independent film festivals in spring 2010. By that time, it may have evolved into a truly positive viewing experience.
Tuesday, March 30, 2010
A Scientist at the Movies