Imagine a government agency breaking into your house and replacing your computer with an exact replica. Or beaming radio signals into your home to mess with your head. Or scattering phony UFO parts across a remote area of New Mexico in order to convince you that you’ve stumbled onto an extraterrestrial crash site.
Sounds crazy? This is precisely what the U.S. air force did to Paul Bennewitz. In the ’80s, along with other agencies, including the NSA, the air force ran a long and elaborate counterintelligence operation against Bennewitz—a successful defence contractor and electronics whiz—after he reported filming strange lights performing impossible feats of aerodynamics around Kirtland Air Force Base. What he was capturing, allegedly, was advanced weaponry. They told him it was aliens. Bennewitz became so consumed by the government’s ever-growing yarn that he ended up in psychiatric care.
“The Bennewitz story—in terms of a modus operandi, if you apply it across the rest of culture—it’s extremely terrifying,” says filmmaker John Lundberg. “It’s not just about UFOs. It’s about you and me and everybody.”
Lundberg is the codirector (with Roland Denning and Kypros Kyprianou) of the film Mirage Men, one of the nerve-shattering highlights of this year’s DOXA Documentary Film Festival. Under the title Secrets & Lies, DOXA’s spotlight series for 2014 assembles 10 features that examine the realms of official and corporate deception—including 1971, in which the eight formerly anonymous citizens who blew the lid off the FBI’s illegal COINTELPRO program go on-camera—as well as the smaller-scale dissembling that can turn our private lives upside down, as in Anna Odell’s gut-wrenching The Reunion.
Mirage Men, however, falls inside an alien-grey area all its own. The subject matter sounds ludicrous on its face, but the implications are stunning. If one or more government bodies are willing to infiltrate and then seriously fuck with something as seemingly innocuous as the UFO-research field—as Bennewitz’s handler, Air Force Office of Special Investigations officer Richard C. Doty, admits in Mirage Men—what else are they prepared to do?
“We’ve always said it’s not a film about UFOs. It’s a film about storytelling, really,” says Lundberg, calling the Straight from his home in York, England. “And about how narratives can be really powerful. And about how narratives can be political. Weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Well, they weren’t there, but it was a powerful enough narrative to start a war. I think that’s more the kind of territory that myself and [writer] Mark [Pilkington] were interested in.”
Describing himself as a Fortean—“I’m a resolute fence sitter,” says Lundberg, who gained some notoriety in the past as a crop-circle hoaxer—the filmmaker actually takes a nuanced view of the UFO phenomenon itself. In a combative scene involving UFO researcher and true believer Linda Moulton Howe (herself a target of Doty’s disinformation), Lundberg can be heard off-camera insisting that he’s no skeptic. But the work of people like Doty exerts a uniquely weird fascination beyond the reality or otherwise of whatever’s out there.
“Back in the ’80s, it was my job to confuse the UFO community” is what Doty tells the filmmakers. It’s not unreasonable to wonder if that’s still his job. “Officially, now, he’s a traffic cop working in Gallup, New Mexico,” Lundberg reports. “He told us off-camera and off-record—I should be careful about what I say—that
he certainly has a lot of current contacts inside the American intelligence community, which is not surprising, given what his job was.”
Ultimately, the likable “former” spook comes off as a singularly gifted trickster. It’s impossible to dismiss any of the implications arising from the claims he makes—including the possibility that any cover story conceals yet another, much more significant deception. “I think we’ve represented his position accurately. I mean, it’s rife with paradox, but that’s exactly who he is,” offers Lundberg, who happily admits that dealing with Doty and infamous intelligence men like former CIA analyst Christopher “Kit” Green left him with a nice, fat “ontological crisis”.
“The material is so opaque, it’s really difficult to know what’s real and what’s not,” he says with a laugh. “I think the film is a fair reflection of what happened to me and Mark during the making of it. I think there are definitely people working inside American intelligence using these kinds of techniques to cover up advanced technology. But I also think there are a lot of people, high up in those positions, like Rick, who probably do believe some of it. It’s kind of like blowback, really. The mythology has kind of become real.”
One of the more striking ideas floated in Mirage Men, courtesy of UFO researcher Richard Dolan, is that popular culture has further helped to “inoculate” the public against serious interest in the phenomenon. It’s a notion that carries over into the far more earthbound movie Virunga, which opens the festival on Friday (May 2).
The scope of Virunga is as vast as the seemingly endless and protean national park of the title—a nearly 8,000-square-kilometre stretch of land in eastern Congo complete with its own volcano. But there’s trouble afoot once again in a region beset for decades by war, foreign interference, and corporate greed.
British director Orlando von Einsiedel had no idea what he was in for when he headed over there in February 2012. “The thrust of the project was to try to tell the story of the rebirth of eastern Congo, because there’d been a period of stability for a few years and I came across the story of the park’s brave rangers,” von Einsiedel tells the Straight from New York, after a buzz-generating debut at the Tribeca Film Festival.
“And I thought their story was a sort of metaphor for the wider rebirth of the region. I went out to tell that story and within a few weeks this new civil war started, and then I found out about the oil discovery. So I ended up making a very different film.”
As captured in Virunga—terrifyingly, as it proceeds—an insurgent group called M23 became the latest rebel group to fashionably declare war against the Congolese government. Concurrently, a British oil and gas exploration group called SOCO International was busy softening up the UNESCO-protected area for drilling, evidently using dirty tricks and possibly doing business with M23 into the bargain. Hanging in the balance was the entire ecosystem, including fishing villages and the world’s remaining population of mountain gorillas.
Standing in their way were those park rangers. “They’re willing to lay down their lives to protect the park,” von Einsiedel says with audible awe. Indeed, a week before the film’s Tribeca debut, chief ranger Emmanuel de Merode was ambushed and shot on his way to the park’s headquarters (he survived). In the film’s most heart-wrenching scenes, we see orphaned gorillas clinging to their protector, ranger Andre Bauma, as gunfire crackles in the distance.
Youthful Belgian journalist Melanie Gouby also did her part, smuggling a hidden camera into a casual dinner date in the city of Goma with a (now former) SOCO executive and a loose-lipped and seemingly psychopathic private security contractor.
What she records is horrifying, like a Graham Greene scenario metastasized to fit our apocalyptic present. Amid references to “fucking monkeys”, the two discuss what’s needed to turn Virunga into a huge oil well. The situation seems so exaggerated that it brings to mind Dolan’s proposition that we psychologically resist a reality that smells too much like fiction. “You do think in the back of your head that these sort of things go on, but I actually think it’s fairly rare that they’re documented,” von Einsiedel remarks. “We were like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe that he’s saying that.’ ”
SOCO has denied all the allegations raised by Virunga, even though, as the director points out, that necessarily includes ignoring footage of a South African security contractor handing “an envelope of money over to a park ranger”, also recorded in a covertly filmed sting.
The evidence seems damning. But the fact that secrets and lies can also be turned against the enemy provides us with a rare and beautiful victory.
For screening details, visit www.doxafestival.ca/.