On flunking the exam
'Ariel Phenomenon' puts adulthood on trial
Mourning in America: No one institutionalizes, or ritualizes, denial like the United States.
“It brings up a lot for me – it’s a reminder of pain, of holding something inside.” Emily Trim’s voice-over dissolves into quiet sobbing during a short sequence of her Toronto-to-Africa airline flight. “I don’t want to hold onto those feelings anymore.” A compressed glimpse of the Harare tarmac outside the passenger window, and somewhere beyond that, ground zero – Ariel School, Ruwa, Zimbabwe.
It has taken 20 years to find an excuse to return to the scene that put Trim at a serious distance from every other Earthling who wasn’t there. The invite arrived in a text message from a former classmate who saw it as well. She reminded Emily that Ariel School was observing its silver anniversary.
Emily made her emotional pilgrimage in 2014, but a record of the journey — a 99-minute documentary called “Ariel Phenomenon” — was finally released last week. By coincidence, I rented it a day after the Uvalde Massacre. But the parallels – rattled elementary schoolkids attempting to describe the unimaginable – seemed pretty obvious. With a few notable exceptions. For one thing, everyone survived. For another, the shock and awe that descended upon five dozen children romping at a school playground in 1994 and triggered a more interior sort of turmoil has yet to reveal the culprits’ identities.
It's safe to assume that newcomers to the UFO drama hadn’t heard of the Zimbabwe encounter until director James Fox brought it to a mass audience in the kicker to his gold-standard 2020 documentary, “The Phenomenon.” To explain what happened in Ruwa, Fox gained limited but meaningful access to contemporaneous footage shot largely by the BBC and Dr. John Mack, the late Harvard psychiatrist. But filmmaker Randall Nickerson had everything. And the curator of Mack’s archives had spent more than a decade gathering enough material to weave into a feature-length stand-alone update of the Ruwa story. The stakes, after all, were personal.
Seeking a global audience
Nickerson and his sister had been traumatized by “alien abduction” memories since childhood, stories they would relay in confidence to the head of Harvard’s Department of Psychiatry. In 1994, when his book Abduction: Human Encounters With Aliens went to press, Mack encouraged the Nickersons to open up to national audiences on Oprah Winfrey. When the Ariel School story broke that September, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author sprang to action. And just two months later, he was in Africa, gathering fresh eyewitness interviews with dozens of youngsters. But Mack died in 2004, a shocker, hit by a drunk motorist in London in 2004. The documentary material languished until Nickerson revived the project in 2008.
Nickerson retraced Mack’s steps to Zimbabwe to locate and re-interview alums and faculty. Prospects were dim – the chaos of the Mugabe regime triggered a diaspora that forced so many Ariel graduates and staff to flee the country. Nevertheless, Nickerson’s tenacity has managed to produce a solemn, restrained, and challenging addition to the UFO corpus, one which should rightfully command global audiences.
Critics can argue that, as a self-proclaimed abductee or experiencer, Nickerson brings a disqualifying bias to the production. But “Ariel Phenomenon” dares us to brand scores of children – and their grownup selves – as liars, or dupes to mass hysteria. In fact, unlike filmmaker Caroline Cory, whose recent and commendable “A Tear in the Sky” UFO documentary was hampered by distracting first-person digressions, Nickerson never asserts his own personal standing. Instead, he excludes his story altogether and leaves the threads to the folks who’ve tried to process their own ordeals, most prominently, former third-grader Emily Trim.
Mixing on-site testimonials from 1994 with adult reflections on childhood estrangement, Nickerson creates a haunting portrait of a time and place where an anomaly turned reality inside out — and chose to ignore grownups altogether. For a local tribal chief’s apprentice, the reason the phenomenon imposed a vision exclusively on children is easy to figure.
“The significance of children is that they are not yet exposed to the world, and they communicate better with the spirits and nature,” the young man tells Emily Trim. “So it is always better to have children. If you want a message to be delivered, it has to be delivered because the child grows with the message.”
Message or no message, the immediate fallout from the playground pandemonium tested the wisdom of administrators, teachers, and parents. Big surprise — many flunked the exam.
Keep calm and carry on
As wary Ariel School headmaster/Robin Williams look-alike Colin Mackie put it 28 years ago, “You have to be extremely careful about which way parents are gonna jump on this,” he cautioned Mack. “If you jump the wrong way, you’ve caused a problem, you’ve caused a problem.”
In fact, Mackie said, a couple of parents had already jumped the wrong way. “We had one child who was very upset by the whole thing. Unfortunately, he’s not at the school anymore, he’s actually gone back to Canada. He was having sleepless nights. And this was a 12, 13-year-old child.
“Basically, the cause of that was, his parents refused to discuss the situation with him. His parents were very religious, and according to them, this sort of thing doesn’t happen.”
Actually, the boy and his younger sister were yanked out of school following global coverage of the incident. Mom and dad were Canadian missionaries. Their daughter, Emily Trim, felt obliged to keep her trap shut. So she spent years in the aftermath drawing, sketching and painting what she remembered, as well as symbolic representations of its impact on her life.
Consensus holds that a shiny oval-shaped object settled into the scrub along the Ariel School perimeter during rec period on September 16, 1994. Several of its “sixth-grade-sized” occupants materialized outside a craft that dazzled one fourth-grader who got a good long look. It “looked like a big rock with water running over it and the sun was reflecting the water – it didn’t look like a smooth metallic object, it looked natural, it didn’t look manmade.”
Blinking in and out of view among kids ages 6-12, the trippy black-clad occupants struck a range of notes across the emotional spectrum, stoking fear and awe and wonder. The occupants “glided, very graceful,” were “very fluid,” or moved as if “running in slow-motion,” according to witnesses. They spoke through silent jet-black eyes shaped “like American footballs,” said one boy. Looking back, a former student likened the unblinking stare to “a lake of calmness.” Several described receiving nonverbal images of Earth in peril, choking to death, planetary collapse.
The encounter may have lasted as long as 10 to 15 minutes. It ended, claimed one girl, when loud buzzing noises like swarms of bees began flooding the playground, sending the kids stampeding back indoors. Likewise, the UFO took off in a flash.
Some of the now-adult eyewitnesses grew up in a state of mental self-exile, tethered to socially radioactive stories they felt unable to share. Emma Kristiansen: “There was nobody there to say now it’s OK to talk about it. So we never did. And as children you have a huge imagination, so you see those sorts of things and not know what they are, and you’re left with this sort of, well, where-am-I limbo state. Of, am I safe or am I not safe? So I think, as a protective mechanism, you block it out, turn it off, don’t go back to it.”
‘Not good for the American public’
Even John Mack, the kids’ biggest advocate, was subjected to quarantine from academia. Arnold Relman, longtime editor of the New England Journal of Medicine and a member of the Harvard Med School committee charged with reviewing Mack’s professionalism, was the voice of establishment science.
“I think in the broad scheme of things, it’s not a socially good thing to do,” Relman said of Mack’s inquiry. “It promotes the cult of mysticism and magic and superstition, you know, the X-File kind of mentality, ‘they’re out there, the government won’t let us find out about it.’ It’s childish and it’s not good for the American public.”
Too bad Relman couldn’t be here to play Oscar The Grouch and scold the UFO hearings underway on The Hill. But that was a different century talking. Today’s House probe into government-certified but grudgingly proffered evidence is growing impatient. At least a few lawmakers are trying to get a handle on the scope and depth of bureaucracy’s firewalls around UFO data.
Yet, here we go — a nonfiction meditation on the Gollum in the basement: UFO occupants, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, little green men, mental telepathy, mindscan. From a film that appears destined to enjoy stellar ratings on the Tomatometer. Such horrid timing. Just as lawmakers are feeling secure enough to entertain evidence of physics-busting hardware, “Ariel Phenomenon” delivers an invitation to postgraduate studies when you’re still trying to get the hang of “See. Dick. Run.”
Poor guys. And gals.
Well, anyway: Last week, a British tabloid announced that NASA was preparing to join government efforts to address the UFO mystery. It would’ve been nice if The Mail had quoted at least one named source who could tell us about the size of the check. But to a larger point: If NASA plans to jump aboard (it seems suddenly unavoidable), then physicists, engineers, and astronomers shouldn’t be the only brains in the hunt. We’ll need it all, psychology, sociology, anthropology — whatever, you name it — to tell us what sort of damage that 75 years of official deception can do to a social order.
And maybe, with a little luck, somewhere along the way, they’ll even be able to tell us why, when confronted with a set of unacceptable facts, the default-mode response among adults — denial — is always so predictable. Especially when it involves vital links to the future, otherwise known as children.