I spent much of the past week at the movies. Meaning, as it often does these days, sitting in front of my computer screen.
The films I watched were two UFO documentaries: “Westall ’66: A Suburban UFO Mystery” (2010, Australia, 49 minutes) and “Ghost Rockets” (2015, Sweden, 72 minutes). They have a fair amount in common. Both represent UFOs, and UFOlogy, outside the US. Each follows a UFO “sleuth”–I borrow the word from the blurb for “Westall ’66”–as he pursues a “cold case” from his native country: to find out what appeared in the sky over a Melbourne school in 1966, what crashed or plunged into a lake in northern Sweden in 1980.
Considered as cinema, “Westall ’66” is by far the more effective. It kept me–I won’t say on the edge of my seat, but engaged from beginning to end. “Ghost Rockets,” by contrast, I found sluggish, soporific, at times depressing.
But does that mean “Westall ’66” is the better film? I’m not sure. There are virtues in “Ghost Rockets” which I’ll blog about in two weeks. For now, let’s have a look–admiring, but also critical–at “Westall ’66.”
The “sleuth” of “Westall ’66” is Shane Ryan, described in the press kit as “a Canberra father and teacher.” At the time the film was made he was in his early 40s. His being a father is crucial to the film, in ways that aren’t clear at first sight but are signaled at the very beginning.
“Soon after my son was born,” Ryan says in the opening voice-over–while a mobile of red and blue disks rotates against the sky, over an infant who’s apparently supposed to be his son–“I began to reflect on a story I’d heard many years before. It was a story about the power adults hold over children, the stories we tell them, and the stories–like this one–that they’re never meant to hear.”
Soon we begin to meet the boys and girls who experienced the UFO at Westall High School on April 6, 1966–a day in the Australian autumn. They’re a group of attractive men and women in their 50s; most of the interviews seem to have been done in 2008, 42 years after the event, and I gather that at least back then an Australian “high school” extended down through our middle grades. (One woman speaks of having been 12 1/2 at the time.) They remember a disk-shaped object that appears in the sky near the school, hovering low, treetop-level or even lower. It’s out over The Grange, a pine grove behind the school that’s a favored place for “illicit smoking and steamy liaisons.” It appears to land there. The students run after it.
It’s not clear from their accounts exactly where the teachers are in all this; one gathers that they try to control the students, but with only partial success. “All the students were just running all over the place, hysterical,” one woman remembers. “We were crying, figuring it was the end of the world.” “Like a whole lot of zebras being terrified by crocodiles,” a man recalls; and the marvelous charcoal-drawn animations that accompany the narrations, and do so much to bring the story to life, show them running in terror. Incongruously, though, toward the UFO and not away.
Another woman remembers a girl named Tanya who got to the UFO in The Grange, saw it while it was still on the ground. Tanya returns to the school but then suffers a breakdown, is taken off in an ambulance. “That was the last time I ever saw her.”
Headmaster Frank Samblebe, deceased at the time of Ryan’s investigation but remembered by his children as a stern disciplinarian with small tolerance for the “supernatural,” cracks down. He calls an assembly, announces that what the kids thought they saw didn’t exist, they must talk about it with no one. A Channel 9 TV crew trying to interview them is shooed away. The students come away feeling ridiculed, disbelieved.
Pursuing this lead, Ryan visits the offices of Channel 9. He discovers that there was indeed a “flying saucer at school” story filmed at the time, and hunts for the film amid the towering shelves of the Channel 9 archive. Eventually he finds the can with the appropriate label.
It’s empty. We’re shown him examining the can, baffled. No one can tell him where the film has gone.
This is the point in “Westall ’66” where I begin to sense how very much we’re in the hands of Ryan and, perhaps more pertinently, writer and director Rosie Jones. How much we have to trust them to understand the significance of what we’re seeing and hearing. All we actually see, after all, is Ryan with an empty can. The mystery of the missing contents–one riff on the theme of suppression, developed more and more as the movie goes on–depends entirely on the accompanying narration.
OK, we’ll take their word for it. We’d have to do the same with any written account of Ryan’s investigation. But my suspicion that I’m being manipulated, however delicately, grows when I see Ryan enter the State Library of Victoria to leaf through back issues of the Dandenong Journal, in search of the only surviving contemporary reportage of the UFO story.
He finds it; we’re shown it. The camera pans over yellowing newspapers with headlines like FLYING SAUCER MYSTERY: SCHOOL SILENT. Not pausing, however, long enough to let us read what these stories actually say. And the story under the front-page headline I’ve just quoted says a few things that don’t jibe with the picture the film conveys.
“Several children attending the school and at least one staff member are reported to have seen the unidentified flying object. … It was described as grey or silver grey in color, but it is not known whether the object appeared high or low in the sky or for how long it was observed.”
Several children? The animations in “Westall ’66” give the impression of an entire school.
Not known whether the object appeared “high or low in the sky”? The interviewees, looking back 42 years, are quite sure that it landed.
(I’m indebted to Wikipedia for posting a scan of the newspaper article, and to skeptical writer Brian Dunning for pointing out the tension between what the newspaper said in 1966 and what the participants remembered many years afterward.)
And now I realize how those wonderful animations have done their part in manipulating my perceptions. They’re in charcoal, black and white, like the old photos of Westall students and teachers and the film clips of Melbourne in the 1960s. How can the idea not have lodged in my mind that they, too, are contemporary, and that in seeing them we’re in the midst of what the youngsters actually experienced?
Of course we’re not. As we listen to these good-looking, intelligent, obviously sincere middle-aged people talk about what they saw and did long ago, what we’re hearing is memories. Which does not make them any less important or instructive than contemporary eyewitness accounts. Quite the opposite, in my opinion. But important and instructive in a different way.
Which brings us back to the question that must have occurred to you some time ago. Why is it that Ryan, as he tells us at the very beginning of the film, began to reflect on the Westall UFO story “soon after my son was born”?
Ryan’s son, shown as an infant in the film’s opening sequences, reappears near the end as a sturdy child of six or so. He walks with his father–not holding his hand; he’s a big boy now–through the pines of The Grange. The sky that we saw at the beginning, background to the mobile with its disks, is visible through the treetops: a sky of autumnal, thrilling blue, half covered with high clouds. Voice-over: “I want my son to grow up in a world where it’s possible to discuss and investigate even the craziest ideas without fear of ridicule or punishment.”
At almost the exact midpoint between these two moments, the father talks about himself as a son. Shane Ryan’s childhood was not, it seems, a happy time. His father had died; his mother remarried; his stepfather and he didn’t get along. “No one really seemed to understand what I was experiencing as a child.” He learned that “we’re all affected by our experiences that aren’t ever properly acknowledged or accepted.”
I gather that Westall ’66 was one of these experiences, which seemed to Ryan to mirror his own.
Again and again the movie hints that there’s something going on beneath the surface, not in the sky but on the ground–in which sense it’s possible to accept that, yes, the “UFO” did “land.” One of Ryan’s interviewees makes the perceptive remark that “this flying saucer thing” was “intertwined with romping around down at The Grange” away from adult eyes, “being involved with something dangerous or clandestine, and they were part of it.” Perhaps wisely, this man doesn’t try to define more closely what that “something” was.
We’re put on notice, however, of the direction we need to look.
A woman is shown going to a hypnotherapist, in classic alien-abductee fashion, to recover her memories of what happened that long-ago day. They remain elusive. “The more I try to see it again the harder it becomes. I can see bodies but I can’t see people, faces. But I can still see the trees and the–it was–yeah.”
It was–yeah. Presumably: the UFO. Whatever that “UFO” may have stood for in her mind.
“I see a real truth in the stories and memories of the witnesses,” Ryan says. I do too. What that “real truth” is I don’t know, and while I’m grateful to “Westall ’66” for exposing us to the people who’ve experienced it, I can’t go along with its not-too-subtle nudging us toward seeing it as coming from outer space. (“I believe there’s life out there. There is,” says one witness at the very end of the film.)
I call that manipulation; and if you think I’m being too harsh, try this experiment:
Watch the movie–it’s worth what you’ll pay for it–and keep track of science teacher Andrew Greenwood, who seems to have been the only adult on the Westall campus who actually saw an unidentified flying object. (With the exception of a chemistry teacher named Barbara Robbins, who’s mentioned early in the film as having photographed the object and then unaccountably vanishes, never to be spoken of again.) Ask yourself: what does the film allow us to know of what Greenwood saw, what he was willing to tell people afterward that he saw?
And given that the answer to that question is, next to nothing, ask yourself: why?
40 minutes into the film, Ryan obtains some of the papers of the tragic American scientist James McDonald, who visited Australia a little over a year after the incident and interviewed Greenwood. The parcel Ryan was sent from America evidently contained a CD with a recording made by McDonald, of “a discussion with Mr. Andrew Greenwood in connection with the Westall sighting.” Yet of that “discussion,” a precious near-contemporary account by an adult observer, we’re allowed to hear only a few half-intelligible fragments. Why?
I suspect for the same reason the camera doesn’t linger on the Dandenong Journal article. What Greenwood had to say pointed to a fairly banal phenomenon in the sky–a weather balloon, perhaps?–turned dramatic and significant through what it triggered in the collective psyche of the adolescents and pre-adolescents who experienced it. It’s in that collective psyche that the Westall UFO has its true reality.
I blogged several years ago about how the 1967 American film “The Graduate” has a subtext, an under-story that’s never explicitly mentioned and yet dominates the entire movie, namely the Vietnam War and the trauma that inflicted on a generation. “Westall ’66” also has an under-story–a tale of fathers and sons, of children turned adolescents, of a magical place called The Grange where sons and daughters rebel against their parents to pursue something preserved in their collective memory as a UFO.
The under-story is visible in “Westall ’66,” but only in bits and pieces. The film’s defect: that it’s so fleetingly perceptible. The film’s virtue: that it’s there at all.
by David Halperin
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