Director John Lundberg,
UK, 2013, 85 min
“Attention projectionists! Adjust the lens so that your picture will be focused properly before the show starts”, booms the voiceover in the opening sequence of the UFO [Unidentified Flying Object] conspiracy theory documentary, Mirage Men. This neat piece of voiceover sets the agenda for the rest of the film, which attempts to shift the focus of UFO and conspiracy theory discourse.
Mirage Men is not interested in proving or indeed, disproving the existence of extra-terrestrials. Rather, it seeks to look at how we come to know the things that we know about alien conspiracy theories, questioning the often disquieting origins of the UFO’s infiltration into the popular culture of today.
Beginning with the flying saucer reports that sparked the Roswell UFO incident of the late forties, Mirage Men highlights the importance of the Robertson Panel, a scientific body commissioned by the US Central Intelligence Agency. The film details how The Robertson Panel encouraged the US government to take great pains to debunk such stories, and to monitor individual civilians who expressed an interest in UFOs with increasing intensity. Contrasting Invasion of the Body Snatchers-esque black and white archive footage with the beauti-fully photographed dusty mountain and desert views of present-day New Mexico, Mirage Men brings a genre steeped in fifties nostalgia up to date. A collaborative effort from directors John Lundberg, Roland Denning and Kypros Kyprianou, the film is an adaptation of Mark Pilkington’s book Mirage Men: A Journey into Disinformation, Paranoia and UFOs: The Weird Truth Behind UFOs (2010). Looking specifically at the culture of disinformation perpetuated by the US Government in the eighties and nineties, Mirage Men promises to expose how the government “created a myth that took over the world”.
The film centres on the figure of US Special Air Force agent Richard Doty, a man so convincing in his perpetuation of this disinformation that he drove UFO enthusiast and PHD physicist Paul Bennewitz to his mental demise. Bennewitz, whose investigations eventually resulted in his admittance to a psychiatric ward, is a notorious figure in the UFO community. Bennewitz famously discovered ‘Dulce Base’, reporting UFO sightings that he had in fact confused with the activities of a secret military base. Threatened by his intimate knowledge and photographic evidence of covert military activity, the government’s counterintelligence forces took things into their own hands and began to feed Bennewitz disinformation, further fuelling his fantastical claims. This disinformation went as far as to allow Bennewitz to form a fully fledged theory, a theory that suggested that he had discovered a secret underground alien facility in Dulce, New Mexico (Dulce Base).
Doty, one of the film’s main talking heads, states that while approximately 80% of the information circulated about UFOs is false, 20% of it is true. However, the increasingly elusive Doty cannily refuses to disclose whether this information favours the existence of UFOs, leaving UFO cynics and conspirators alike still scratching their heads. And yet, Mirage Men does not necessarily seek to identify whether or not these mysterious flying objects are actually the product of extra-terrestrial activity. Rather, it probes influential members of the UFO community as well as ex-members of special government divisions in an attempt to unravel the complex web of deceit surrounding the community.
Among Mirage Men’s other interviewees is former journalist and director of UFO documentary From Beyond: Strange Harvest, Linda Howe. Once a credible member of the press, Howe’s reputation is seen to suffer a blow; a direct result of her investigations into UFOs. Howe, in the late sixties and early seventies, took an interest in the disturbing phenomenon of cattle mutilation. However, Howe’s claims that these mutilations might very well be the product of alien activity fell under scrutiny. This scrutiny concerned the US government enough to warrant the National Security Association (NSA) to feed Howe a wealth of doctored research papers and false governmental reports on the subject of extra-terrestrial activity.
Mirage Men attempts to uncover how and why the NSA devised such an intricate hoax – if there was no real evidence to hide. Cold, calculated and profoundly creepy, Doty is certainly seen to play his part in encouraging the paranoid delusions of inquisitive, compliant individuals like Bennewitz and Howe. Indeed, in his transparent manipulation of Bennewitz’s patriotism and optimistic, scientific zeal, Doty is shown to be a villainous character. However, Mirage Men, in its navigation of this labyrinth of disinformation, reveals ways in which Doty himself may have also been manipulated.
Pilkington, Lundberg, Denning and Kyprianou question what is really meant by ‘disinformation’, and the implications of questioning both its origins and its validity. Mirage Men is a chilling descent into the murky underworld of myth-making, showing the extent to which all ideas and theories concerning this subject are produced and promulgated by the US Government._
International Premiere: Sheffield Doc/Fest