THE UFOS OF SOESTERBERG Review: Keeping Things Refreshingly Real

Bram Roza's documentary about a famous UFO sighting is respectful, down-to-Earth and dryly funny.

Editor, Europe; Rotterdam, The Netherlands (@ardvark23)
THE UFOS OF SOESTERBERG Review: Keeping Things Refreshingly Real
In February 1979, more than a dozen witnesses saw an Unidentified Flying Object in the forests of the middle of the Netherlands. "A bunch of nutters and fantasists", is the first thing most people might think. But this sighting was special for several reasons: the witnesses were all military personnel, the area of the sighting was an air-force base partly used by the Americans, and all the testimonies corroborated each other. If someone says he's seen a flying saucer and little green men appeared, it's easy to dismiss. But if watchmen describe a strange craft in detail hovering over a landing strip and ask the airport tower if they see it too, and the answer is "yes", then that's a different story. In the end, this became one of few sightings where the Dutch government felt itself forced to come up with an answer. Still, it all vanished from the news quickly.

UFOS-Soesterberg-ext1.jpgThe subject of UFOs has always intrigued documentary filmmaker Bram Roza, to the point that he has even helped set up a hotline for UFO sightings. Impressively, his organization keeps things real. Sightings are archived, checked and often even debunked. A bunch of weird lights above a certain city? Roza will check with the local military if there were night-time skydiving exercises there (those can cause a lot of sightings).

It's this sober and scientific approach which has made him a respected guest in talk shows whenever the subject of Unidentified Flying Objects is in the news again. You'll hear no theories or wild fantasies from him, at least not when a camera is on. No Martians, no extraterrestrials, no little green men. The key word is "unidentified" meaning nobody knows yet and research would be nice. That's his message, and that is the approach he takes with sightings. It's this same approach which makes his documentary The UFOs of Soesterberg so refreshing. A glass of water for sane people.

The tagline on the poster is "Close Encounters of the Dutch Kind", plural, which points towards another fact: there have been a lot of UFO sightings in that area. Bram Roza speaks with several witnesses and interestingly juxtaposes the accounts. As a viewer, you can judge for yourself which ones you find plausible and which ones you find ludicrous. And what's sometimes been mentioned as a weird explanation for one encounter might actually be a decent one for another.

So what happened at Soesterberg exactly on that night? An experimental American aircraft? A mirage? Spying Russians? Aliens? Time travellers? It's been certified, even by the government and the military, that people saw something. And that the witnesses didn't exactly find their lives getting any easier afterwards, dismissed as crazy by the press, friends and family.

The UFOs of Soesterberg treats both the witnesses and the cynics with respect, and refuses to provide either an easy answer or a nice fantasy. An overall sense of humor keeps the film pleasant to watch, ranging from the ultra-dry comments by the people being interviewed, to their colorful remarks when challenged. Re-enactments are shown by way of animations and drawings, keeping things visually interesting and preventing the documentary from becoming just a bunch of talking heads and newspaper clips.

Bram Roza was earlier involved with the film Xangadix Lives!, a documentary about the oft-forgotten Dutch big budget horror movie The Johnsons. That documentary was surprisingly well made and amusing. It's good to see that this wasn't a "one-hit-wonder" as the same can be said about The UFOs of Soesterberg. I saw The UFOs of Soesterberg during its première in the Netherlands, in the city of Amersfoort, less than ten miles from where the sightings happened. Several people from airbase Soesterberg were present, witnesses and detractors alike, and a good time was had by all. I'm looking forward to whatever the Gouda-based director will next turn his attention to for a documentary, be it cheese or cephalopods...


The UFOs of Soesterberg had its world première at the Science + Fiction Film Festival of Trieste and is currently travelling through the Netherlands in a string of sold-out screenings. No distributor has been attached yet.

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