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Growing Up Carrying the Weight of Mystery: Ariel Phenomenon (Film Review)

As I wrote in a previous article when the trailer for Ariel Phenomenon came out, I tend to end up being disappointed with UFO-related documentaries because they are not intended for me as the main audience. The filmmakers are more interested in convincing skeptics (good luck with that) or tantalize undecided viewers with the possibility those silly flying saucers –which have invaded our pop culture in anything from cereal boxes to Hollywood blockbusters– might be actually real after all. Like, for real.

I was, however, expecting something more from this particular documentary; because I’ve felt a certain personal connection with it for a very long time: I was already in college in 1994 when the story of an alleged UFO landing in some remote school in Zimbabwe attained global attention. Like almost all who are obsessed with this phenomenon I became instantly enamored with the small children which were the witnesses of this close encounter; they all looked so unbelievably cute with their neat school uniforms, their sincere voices with a tinge of British accent (the remnants of African colonialism) and their impeccable manners they exhibited while doing their best to respond to the questions of investigators and TV reporters, it was almost impossible not to believe these children were sincere.

Ariel school children

My interest in the Ariel case was rekindled in 2016, when I was fortunate enough to accompany my friend Greg Bishop to the Open Minds UFO Conference in Arizona. As luck would have it, that was the year Emily Trim –one of the Ariel school children, and in many ways the main protagonist of the film– was invited to give a presentation; the raw emotion in her words as she spoke about how difficult it has been for her to live with this experience, even more than 20 years after it happened, caused the whole audience to give her a standing ovation. Of all the available DVDs of the conference’s presentations, her is the only one I bothered to buy.

So, like I said, I was expecting quite a lot from this documentary which has been officially released today, and I am happy to report my expectations were fulfilled.

[Some Spoilers Ahead]

The film, directed by Randall Nickerson and composed in part with historic footage along with modern interviews, gives the viewer proper context on the strange wave of UFO sightings that befell upon the fledgling African republic of Zimbabwe (which was at the time suffering from riots and protests over the dictatorial rule of President Mugabe). It was under these circumstances that the Ariel close encounter took place, and Tim Leach (a BBC war correspondent stationed in the country at the time) was not only responsible for the international notoriety the case took initially, but also for bringing in renowned Harvard professor and psychiatrist John Mack to investigate it.

Dr John Mack
Dr. John E. Mack (1929-2004)

Mack, whose academic credentials had turned him into the most notorious personality championing the phenomenon known as ‘alien abductions’ as something that deserved serious scientific scrutiny, also brought the Ariel case to the attention of the American mainstream media, including Oprah. All this kitschy popularity didn’t sit well with Mack’s colleagues at Harvard who felt he had gone too far with this “alien hobby” of his. The movie spends considerable time showing Mack –who died tragically in London in 2004, after being run over by a truck driver due to his own imprudence (he forgot to look to the opposite way before crossing the street) – as something of a martyr figure who was put under investigation and was even close to lose his tenure, until the Dean dropped all charges and issued a public apology.

Leach’s career also suffered greatly for paying attention to a story his bosses at the Beeb considered to be poppycock, and here it is interesting to notice how often the UFO phenomenon cause the ‘liberal left’ to act far more reactionarily than the ‘conservative right’. As an example of this, the film shown an interview with a certain Arnold Relman, MD –who I nicknamed the ‘Grand Inquisitor’ while watching the film– who was the editor of the New England Journal of Medicine at the time, and was appointed by the Dean of Harvard University to look into John’s practice for fear of any ‘violation of medical standards’ (BS, they were worried about their lofty reputation being soiled by Donahue and Larry King). Speaking with an insufferably arrogant tone to the camera, Relman kept complaining on how Mack’s theories were dangerous because they promoted “the cult of mysticism and magic.” And at one point he says, “If (Mack’s patients) were (abducted) then the whole world as we know it is upside down!”

Yeah well… maybe it is?

I am aware many pundits in the UFO world will take issue with the fact Randall the director is conflating the veracity of abduction cases –which remain highly controversial even among believers of the phenomenon– with the Ariel case, and yet no one could deny both the people who claim to have been taken by spindly gray beings from their bedroom and the Ariel children suffered a similar social stigma throughout their lives. Something confirmed by the numerous testimonies of Ariel witnesses collected by this film, confessing how difficult it has been for them to live with the weight of their close encounter experience for most of their lives, without rarely having the chance to find a safe space to share their memories.

“My husband doesn’t even know about it,” Emma Kristiansen, one of the witnesses, bravely confesses in front of the camera. Imagine the sense of alienation (pun not intended) of carrying that kind of secret all of your life and being afraid to share it with your own partner! –if you have been a victim of abuse, I am sure you can.

No clearer example of this struggle could have been shown than in the story of Emily, the witness who rekindled my interest in the case back in 2016, and who is in many ways the emotional backbone keeping the whole thing glued together. She became an artist, and her expressionistic paintings perfectly capture her inner struggles of not only having witnessed something which openly defies the stability of reality, as Grand Inquisitor Relman feared, but the silent despair of not being able to talk about it with her own family. Having been raised in a deeply religious and conservative household, she and her brother –who was also a witness but for some reason declined to be interviewed for this film– were never allowed to openly discuss what they have witnessed with her missionary parents, for whom their Christian faith and Western acculturation simply did not allow for any sort of filing box in which to categorize their children’s experience.

One of Emily’s most striking paintings is that of a girl with pigtails –such as the ones she used to have when she went to school at Ariel– with her mouth zipped shut.

And yet, there are other cultures in the world for which dealing with these type of experiences might be easier and more natural. The documentary transforms into a journey of healing for Emily, who decides to accept an invitation to go back to Zimbabwe to participate in the 25th anniversary of the school. Walking across the old school ground where she used to play as a girl and having the chance to reconnect with a few of her schoolmates and former teachers –who by the way seemed to have all taken the best attitude possible of believing their students saw something, while not necessarily taking their accounts at face value– seemed to have been incredibly therapeutic to her.

The other part of the healing process came from her meeting with some local tribal leaders and ‘medicine men’, who kept assuring Emily that what she and the other kids went through is no different from the kind of spiritual experiences their people have had for generations. “If you want a message to be delivered, it has to be delivered to children,” Duke Monzowa (son and apprentice of Village chief Goromonzi) tells the camera. Comparisons are odious, and yet the Ariel film’s approach to exploring different cultural interpretations to the UFO phenomenon (closer to spiritual/mystical events than the nuts-and-bolts explanations favored by Western researchers) felt pleasantly reminiscent to another documentary I highly recommend: Witness of Another World.

Monzowa’s words help us make yet another inconvenient comparison I cannot help to think of –one that sadly wasn’t made by this documentary– between the Ariel case and another highly notorious event in which children were the primary witnesses: I am of course talking about the Fatima apparitions of 1917, in which many of the things reported by the Ariel witnesses were also present: flashes of light, buzzing sounds like that of bees, and (more importantly) some type of telepathic communication in which the children received terrible visions. In the case of the Ariel children, the visions seemed to have been connected to environmental collapse and our mistreat of the natural world; in the case of Fatima, the second “prophecy” revealed to Lucia (the main witness) was interpreted by the Catholic church as a vision of Hell, with human bodies wringing in a sea of melting sulfur. But what if those visions were not of an eternal torment bestowed by a vengeful god, but another vision of things that have yet to pass? Might not the scenes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the fall of the atomic bombs in 1945 seem as an infernal realm to an illiterate child in the year 1917?* Once again, cultural interpretation is of paramount importance when dealing with this phenomenon.

“(These) are spiritual messages that you have to deliver,” Monzowa tells a nervous Emily. “You have to share it. You have to shout!” he firmly says while laughing to reassure her. She laughs back in response and nods her head. The little girl with the cute pig tails is finally zipping open her mouth and speaking up.

Like her, many other of the Ariel witnesses –now spread all across the world due to Zimbabwe’s political turmoil in the 1990’s– are also finding the courage to raise their voice and share the visions they received from the deep black eyes of the strange entities that appeared before them almost three decades ago.

Most of that message will not be pleasant to our ears, who have grown so used to the comforts brought by modern technology. And yet, the warning received by the Ariel children is clear: our world and our own survival are in danger precisely because we have grown too “technologed”, to use the very words of Emma back when she was a young girl answering the questions of Dr. Mack. This seems a direct contradiction to the technophilic approach exhibited by most UFO enthusiasts, who firmly believe the disclosure of alien-reversed technologies is the only thing that can save us now; but it most certainly agrees with the stern messages given by other ‘primitive’ cultures who are not impressed by our plastic gadgets and see them instead as distractions to the larger world of Spirit.

Who is right, the people who built atom bombs or the people who have lived on this planet for thousands of years?

When talking about the importance of the Ariel event in front of the cameras, Dr. John Mack adamantly said, “this event should persuade people.” 28 years ago I really believed that. But now it’s 2022 and the Ariel school children have grown into adults much older than I was in 1994, and neither I nor they have gotten any definitive answers about what’s really going on.

Oh sure, some of the stigma surrounding the phenomenon has been lifted as of late, but almost all of that new openness is reserved to military pilots when describing things that can be safely perceived in terms of advanced technology. If those Navy aviators were talking about apocalyptic visions of the future instead, I very much doubt there would be any US Congressmen willing to risk their political necks by discussing about it on the record.

And yet documentaries like these are thankfully being made to remind us that the UFO mystery is bigger, richer, and far deeper than paranoid discussions of national security and ‘counterintelligence threats’. Listening to the voices of these children-turned-adults, it is clear that despite their personal struggles they have in the end managed to bravely live with the uncertainty of their experience, and somehow incorporate it into their personal belief system to give them a profound sense of humility.

It is perhaps this humility shared by children of different backgrounds, races and social circumstances, what may be behind the whole point of this fascinating encounter in the end.

“The world is a beautiful and strange place. And we’re just human beings. We can’t know everything.” Those are the words given by one of the Ariel witnesses, and it is a lesson we can all be reminded of every time we stop looking at our cell phones and raise our gaze into the night sky.

Ariel Phenomenon is now available for renting. Go watch it now.

(*): Another old case which has recently gotten a lot of attention thanks to the book Trinity by Jacques Vallee and Paola Harris, also involves children as witnesses and the witnesses claim to have had received telepathic visions of tall buildings collapsing, which are strongly suggestive of a catastrophic event that was yet to take place… like 9/11.

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