I caught the world premiere of Canadian documentary filmmaker David Cherniack's new film UFOs: The Secret History, on The History Channel here in Canada tonight. The film is must-see viewing for anyone interested in UFOs, but at the same time its accessible to the general public whose only real exposure to the UFO phenomenon has been The X-Files. A compelling, and at times lyrical, examination of the history of the UFO phenomenon and our relationship to it as a species, UFOs: The Secret History is an example of a documentary that manages to convey information in a compelling and entertaining manner, and which raises more questions than it answers. In short, it is superior filmmaking.
The film is not without flaws. Dr. Jacques Vallee and others like him are dismissed in a minute or so - Jerry Clark refers to Vallee's approach to the UFO phenomenon as "debunking with a more pretentious name", and Cherniack in his narration largely dismisses it as a result of the fascination with Eastern mysticism that arose in the counter-culture of the late 1960s. Cherniack makes a few factual errors as well - he refers to Dr. Edward Condon, for example, for example, as an astronomer, when in fact Condon was a physicist and a pioneer in quantum mechanics. I also dispute Cherniack's contention that Close Encounters of the Third Kind was the first great UFO film, and a turning point where UFOs left the scientific realm and became firmly ensconced in pop culture, a conclusion that ignores a long and rich history of UFOs as part of pop culture, from Orson Welles' War of the Worlds to The Day the Earth Stood Still to Stanley Kubrick's classic 2001: A Space Odyssey.
These are relatively small things, however, when compared with what the film gets right. It details the history of the UFO phenomenon from the late 1940s to the present day in just an hour, and manages to hit most of the high and low points along the way, from the founding of NICAP and the work of Dr. Jim McDonald on the one hand to the "swamp gas" and alien autopsy fiascos on the other. Cherniack shows how the United States Air Force and other government agencies, notably the CIA, have not been completely forthcoming about the UFO phenomenon, but he does so without the kind of rampant conspiracy theorizing that seriously marred Richard Dolan's otherwise useful book UFOs and the National Security State. Indeed, in the second half of the film, Cherniack shows how the descent of ufology into the fringe world of crashed flying saucer stories, conspiracy theorism, and the abduction phenomenon, has obscured the reality of the UFO phenomenon in the past thirty years, with the result that there is no real hope for a serious scientific inquiry into UFOs, and the UFO story gets ignored by the mainstream media now as being inherently silly.
Cherniack spends very little time on Roswell, for example (Stan Friedman gets less screen time here than he did in the ABC News documentary Seeing is Believing a couple of years ago), because at best it is inconclusive, and at worst it has proven to be a huge distraction from the search for the truth. Cherniack devotes more time to showing how Roswell led inevitably to the fraudulent MJ-12 documents than he does to the case itself, and we get to see rare clips from the legendary UFO Cover-Up Live program that featured Jaime Shandera and Bill Moore, as well as "Falcon", and stories that the aliens like Tibetan music and strawberry ice cream. That is where crashed saucer tales and things like MJ-12 have led ufology, and Cherniack wonders whether the UFO phenomenon has been deliberately manipulated to cover up what was really going on, whether extraterrestrial visitation or top secret US government testing programs.
But Cherniack is no debunker - he shows the absurdity of the US Air Force's Project Mogul explanation, for example. In one of the better segments, he also demonstrates what a pivotal moment the Colorado Project was for the serious study of the UFO phenomenon, and how it was a complete and utter scientific fraud foisted on the general public by the US Air Force and Edward Condon - much to the chagrin of many of the people who actually investigated the cases for Condon, including Dr. William Hartmann, who found the 1950 Trent photos case compelling (Hartmann appears briefly in the film).
At its core, however, UFOs: The Secret History is as much about us as it is about the UFO phenomenon. Whether UFOs are real or not isn't really the issue, he seems to be saying. It's our need to mythologize the phenomenon that's truly fascinating, and he delves into that aspect of the story with an expert hand, as he notes, for example, that whether abductions are real or not, "they were touching upon something deeply mythic". But Cherniack is not just about this angle either - like me, he is clearly convinced that there is an objective reality to the UFO phenomenon. Although he isn't quite sure what UFOs are, the hundreds of excellent cases that remain unexplained, and which feature multiple witness accounts and hard data like radar hits and other physical evidence, are impossible to ignore.
Like a great figure skater or gymnast, Cherniack completes his "routine" with a perfect ending. The version of contact that we have imagined, he says, is a myth that we have created to shield us from a reality that we have little hope of understanding, given that we may well be dealing with civilizations or intelligences millions or even billions of years more advanced than we are. As long as we are focused on crashed flying saucers, and conspiracies, and other fringe elements with no real evidence, we are truly missing what could be a very important story.
Cherniack's film demonstrates how we have held ourselves back in terms of our understanding of the UFO phenomenon through our own self-imposed perceptual limitations, and the "noise" we have ourselves created. At the same time, however, Cherniack shows us that there is still a "signal" out there worth looking for, if only we have the courage and the intellectual open-mindeness to try.
UFOs: The Secret History, is a profoundly rich and thought-provoking film, well worth repeated viewings. Here's hoping that it gets the attention that it deserves, and that people embrace a nuanced film that refuses to fall into either fundamentalist debunkery or died-in-the-wool believerism.