It was a classic Fantastic Fest experience. A documentary with a seemingly wonky premise that ultimately offered profound food for thought. It seems fitting that in the same year the festival honors Errol Morris it also embraces Mirage Men. The premise? That the UFO narrative and much of the conspiracy narrative, that have created such enthusiastic communities of true believers are in fact largely the creation of a constant stream of misinformation by various US Governmental agencies. What sounds like a pitch for a TV show is in fact irrefutable.
But what's also irrefutable is that people are pretty glib in the sort of thought they give to stuff like this. Of course the UFO folks are nuts. Of course the government lies. It seems like a match made in heaven. What isn't discussed much, is how creating an aura of unreliability around these communities benefits US intelligence agencies, puts the rest of us at risk, and obscures facts that the public would be better off having access to.
Case in point, Paul Bennewitz, a UFO enthusiast and entrepreneur who stumbled upon (and began to monitor) transmissions and events at a local military base, becoming increasingly convinced they were extraterrestrial in origin. Enter Special Agent Rick Doty, who was assigned to befriend Bennewitz, and encourage him to think he was working with the government to uncover a UFO conspiracy, in order to control his monitoring activities.
Yeah it sounds The Men Who Stare At Goats (2009) meets The X Files, but the problem is that even though Doty claims to have taken Bennewitz aside, even confess to what he had misled him to believe, Bennewitz still wound up being the goat. Within a few short years the once successful business man had gone insane, lost his business, eventually being institutionalized.
Making much of their access to Doty, the filmmakers give him ample opportunity to explain his role. Now, supposedly (and probably) retired he actually attends UFO conventions claiming to be a true believer in the basic idea of alien intelligence. But since then, he's been accused, quite credibly, of dissimulating falsified government reports about a massive foreign exchange program between alien intelligences and the earth.
Mirage Men is a scary, unsettling but hardly exploitive effort to remind people that sometimes what you don't know can indeed hurt you. It's also a reminder that what you do know, and what you choose to do with what you know, can hurt you. In other words: the truth itself becomes unidentifiable, flitting in and out of the corner of the eye so fast that you can't even be sure it was there to begin with. Just when you are ready to make a statement it moves again. At one point in the film the camera catches one of the interviewees in a bald-faced lie. At the bottom of that lie is something horrifying about human nature. It has to do with what the tension between the need for human governance and the need to know the truth about our position in the cosmos creates in us: in both the liars and the lied to.
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