Twenty-four minutes into the long-awaited documentary “The Phenomenon,” director James Fox foreshadows its final act with a look back at what happened outside Australia’s Westall School in 1966.
That’s when several hundred students came swarming out of their classrooms upon hearing about a disc-shaped UFO stunting in broad daylight over the power lines near the athletic field. They watched it descend below the treeline, rise again, turn on its broad side, and zip away at a crazy velocity.
Fifty years later, a handful of those eyewitnesses reconvene to share not only their sighting experience, but how they watched local and federal authorities cordon off the landing area to conduct an investigation. They were also warned by the administration during a subsequent school assembly that they hadn’t seen what they said they saw. Even today, a faculty member who watched that event unfold agreed to go on camera only after being assured of anonymity.
For anyone who’s followed the mystery for any length of time, stories like these are generically familiar. Indeed, much of the setup follows a conventional arc with names (from Gen. Roger Ramey to John Podesta), places (Roswell, Bentwaters, Malmstrom AFB) and events (from Kenneth Arnold’s “flying saucer” sighting in 1947 to the 2004 Tic Tac incident off California) that are staples of the UFO timeline. But Fox is targeting a much larger audience, and establishing baseline frames of reference for the uninitiated is absolutely critical for the emotional wallop “The Phenomenon” packs at the end.
With American democracy on the ropes and institutional norms degenerating into banana-republic spittle, convincing audiences to divert their attention, if only momentarily, to what has long been libeled as freak-show culture is a big ask. It’s always been a big ask. However, the fringe is also deteriorating, and things are happening quickly now. Whether it’s the formation of the Pentagon UAP Task Force or the anticipated release of the military intelligence report on UFOs to the Senate, the landscape on the other side of the election is already evolving into something for which we are unprepared. And “The Phenomenon” forces us to go even deeper, to maybe even reassess the longstanding status quo on UFOs, as maybe a crime against nature – human nature.
To be sure, Fox delivers twists that may take some cognoscenti by surprise.
Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Chris Mellon, for instance, recalls how Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper broached the UFO subject with President Clinton during a Cabinet meeting. Dispatched by SecDef William Cohen to learn more, Mellon remembers hitting the wall when a USAF colonel told him the pertinent records had been “cleaned up or thrown out to save space.” Mellon goes on to recount how “somebody bent the rules” to get the celebrated F-18 UFO chase videos to him in the parking lot of the Pentagon. He also professes how “extraordinarily disappointed” he was in the NY Times groundbreaking story of 12/16/17, which showcased the videos and exposed the existence of the $22 million Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program.
Instead of focusing on AATIP, Mellon says, “the real story, in my mind at least, should’ve been, these things are real, they’re here, this is happening now.”
“The Phenomenon” also takes us behind the scenes and gives us tantalizingly brief glimpses into the research underway right now on purported UFO debris collected “as far back as 1947.” French physicist/computer scientist/pioneer UFOlogist Jacques Vallee says colleagues are investigating material that is manufactured, not natural, by employing technology that allows researchers to peer into atomic structure so deeply it is “impossible to fake.” Stanford Med School microbiology professor Garry Nolan displays the “multiparameter ion beam imager,” and discusses how it determined that the samples’ isotopic compositions are unique to any metals known on Earth.
“If you’re talking about an advanced material from an advanced civilization, you’re talking about something that I’ll just call an ultramaterial, right,” Nolan tells Fox. “It’s something which has properties where somebody is putting it together at the atomic scale. So we’re building our world with 80 elements, somebody else is building the world with 253 different isotopes.”
But beyond isotopic ratios, a discussion of threats to the superpowers’ nuclear arsenals, and the bureaucratic intrigues, “The Phenomenon” poses an even more fundamental question: More than 70 years into the “modern” UFO era, where have the morals or ethics of denial and obfuscation left us? In a more recent version of what happened at the Westall School in Australia, Fox leads us to the Ariel School in Zimbabwe, and into the life-altering mass encounter that went down in 1994.
Using a remarkable anthology of contemporaneous BBC video testimony from dozens of schoolkids discussing what they saw 26 years ago, Fox reunites a handful of those students for interviews as adults. All have had decades to contemplate that moment, an experience which diverged sharply from your average lights-in-the-sky fare. They reported seeing small beings outside the vehicle, the apparent occupants, with large heads and huge, hypnotic black eyes. Many received telepathic messages, largely dystopian, about the fate of the Earth and technology’s role in its sickness.
Most poignant are the interviews conducted by the late Harvard psychiatrist John Mack, whose onsite empathy and compassion in 1994 clearly moved some of those kids to extraordinary reflection. To her credit, unlike in Australia, at least one Ariel School official encouraged the children to “say exactly what you want to say” as cameras assembled for interviews. Decades later, however, at least one of the alums admitted to having misgivings about sharing her experience so freely, “being so young and not even being allowed time to able to comprehend what we had seen.”
She added, “Our teacher certainly didn’t believe us, so that was a big deal because we had to continue going to school there.”
By time Fox’s production team arrived in rural Ruwa, former Ariel teacher and current headmistress Judy Bates had her own on-camera confession to make all these years later:
“I wanted to apologize, I should’ve taken more notice, but I didn’t. I was more concerned about me and not them, and what was going on in my own personal experience.” Her verdict: “Aliens visited us – and that’s about it.”
Fox knows the Zimbabwe material is dynamite, and he’s smart enough to back off and let the images breathe. It’s not so much what the kids said back then as how they said it. They struggled to articulate what was going on behind their eyes, and they expressed themselves with a halting uncertainty that seemed to wobble between wonder and trauma. The adults failed them then, just as they failed the Aussie kids in 1966, as well as countless others who’ve been ostracized and doubting their sanity since whenever this all started.
Bottom line, “The Phenomenon” is a call to action.
Fox puts an urgent human face on the current momentum towards transparency, and he leaves us with a small window into the price we pay for doing nothing. Someday, if and when the veil parts, we may regret having peeked. But the consequences of being shielded from the view are self-evident. And time is running out.