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James Fox's latest chases Brazil's lost planet airmen
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Carlos de Sousa, 60-something, is certain the phantasmagoria that changed his life found him somewhere around here, on this dusty backroad twisting through rural southeastern Brazil. That was nearly half a lifetime ago, in 1996, and he never went back. Until now.
The entourage pulls over for a look-around, but nope, this isn’t it. In his memory, there was a white farmhouse nearby. They move on across the rolling backcountry. Over there, a small house, painted white — maybe? The camera follows de Sousa as he gets out and wanders across an open field.
Something clicks. De Sousa raises both arms high. “Here,” he says in Portuguese. He makes gun-barrel fingers and aims them straight ahead. “Here!” He steps up the pace, jogging now, jabbing his right arm forward. “Here! Here!” He takes a knee, pats down the dry grass, swings his forefinger to and fro. “Here!” He springs to his feet, taking note of the distance to the white farmhouse, the tree that wasn’t there 26 years ago.
“It came, it crashed,” says de Sousa, the vivid flashback crashing in on him again, “rebounded, spread out.” He flings his arms wide, as if to embrace it, pivoting back into the moment of a younger man’s awe; it was dawn back then, twilight. “Here.” He sweeps the scene in broad breathless gestures, looks skyward, sighs. “Here.” He lowers his voice, wipes his eyes, both hands. He sinks to a crouch, snatches a blade of grass in what looks like a wisp of anger. He bows his head, the inward gaze. “This is where it crashed.”
Almost too perfect
To be sure, there are far more surrealistic testimonials in James Fox’s new documentary “Moment of Contact,” which introduces a new generation to one of the damnedest UFO crash-retrieval stories of all time. Known as Brazil’s Roswell, this one has everything, even the kitchen sink: a wrecked spaceship, memory metal, close encounters with dead and dying aliens, a military intercept/coverup, Men In Black, bullied eyewitnesses, a secret U.S. mission to snatch and abscond with the loot and – perhaps a first – a Brazilian soldier whose death is attributed to contamination exposure from a crash survivor he managed to corral with his unprotected bare hands.
In short, the Varginha Incident – named for the municipality where most of the action went down – is almost too good, and critics are sure to pounce on the film’s omissions. “Moment of Contact” opens with the pronouncement that NORAD alerted Brazilian authorities to UFO activity in their air space in January 1996, but it presents no documentation for that assertion. There’s considerable attention on the mysterious infection that killed young military policeman Marco Chereze, but little devoted to the specific contents of the medical summaries, which are allegedly incomplete anyway. The claim that the U.S. Air Force swooped in to seize debris and cadavers is mere hearsay, and no American authorities are interviewed to stick up for Uncle Sam.
That said, in his four previous UFO documentaries – one as producer, three as director – Fox’s strong suit has always been his work with eyewitnesses. Twenty-six years after the Varginha Incident briefly commanded the world stage, Fox holds a mirror to the palpable sense of awe, fear and indignation lingering amid a community forever shaped by a garish mystery that, unlike Roswell, exists well within living memory. Like Roswell, however, Varginha has turned its brush with high strangeness into tourist magnets with flying saucer kitsch. Even the mayor’s office keeps a flying saucer paperweight near the entrance.
‘Like rotten eggs’
So far, the hunt for hard evidence to substantiate first-person stories has proven futile, and Fox offers excerpts from luminary researchers who’ve gone to their graves empty-handed: Stanton Friedman, John Mack and Roger Leir. But as Fox makes clear, Varginha is just a single datapoint from a South American landmass 13 times the size of Texas.
“Moment of Contact” begins its timeline overview in 1957, with the explosion – and allegedly recovered fragments – of a UFO before it hit the Atlantic Ocean near Ubatuba. But the arguably most disturbing case on record unfolded over the island of Colares in 1977-78, when hundreds of residents reported being attacked and burned by UFOs. The Brazilian Air Force code-named their investigation Operation Plate, which produced interviews with and photos of blistered victims. Although the military released UFO images recorded by its own agents, skeptics contend much of the data remains classified today.
What clearly sets Varginha apart from its predecessors are the astonishing run-ins with two presumed UFO jockeys who appear to have been stranded on Earth when their ride went down in farmland 12 miles outside the city. Although several rural locals claim to have seen the minibus-sized ship struggling to stay aloft, Carlos de Sousa maintains he actually followed the crippled craft in his car as dawn broke on January 13, 1996. His return to the crash site is the film’s emotional centerpiece.
“Beings died here,” de Sousa laments in the empty field, although that’s not precisely true according to the storyline. While he observed the wreckage, watched as the foil-like debris he wadded up in his hands reverted to its original shape, and he smelled a godawful stench “like rotten eggs,” de Sousa saw no signs of life. What he did see was an approaching military detachment, which ordered him off the property at gunpoint. De Sousa shared his experience on the front end of the media coverage in 1996, but clammed up about it until Fox’s team showed up a quarter-century later.
‘Cowering and afraid’
Exactly how the crash survivors went undetected for a full week, or how they straggled to the city in the first place, remains unclear. Fox says Brazilian researchers speculate they stuck close to a river that flows into town.
At any rate, the outsiders would surface on January 20 in Varginha, 1996 population 100,000. That’s when three teenaged schoolgirls were startled beyond words as they trudged into a vacant lot to discover a small, spindly, dark, hairless and apparently sweating “creature” huddled against a graffiti-splattered wall.
Unable to tell if the thing had a mouth or nose, they said it stared back with red eyes roughly three times the size of human peepers. Interviewed contemporaneously by Brazilian media and decades later by Fox, the trio described the neither-human-nor-animal stranger as having “a sad expression,” suffering, “cowering and afraid.” They said the fear was mutual, one girl screamed, and all three fled like the wind.
The anecdotal trail indicates that firemen responding to emergency calls on the outskirts of Varginha apprehended one of the beings with a catchpole that same morning; later that evening, MP Marco Chereze caught a second alien as it darted in front of his vehicle. Both collars occurred on January 20, but the fire department and the army apparently weren’t talking to each other because the captives – one of which died enroute – were delivered to different hospitals.
Indirect witnesses still recall military roadblocks at the perimeter of the lot where the girls’ encounter occurred. A nearby family that agreed to share their recollections anonymously told Fox they’d spotted a flying disc at treetop level, the very next day, cruising above the road in broad daylight, as if scanning for companions. Employees at both hospitals reported an abiding stench – sulfur, ammonia – long after the army whisked both alien bodies away to a military base. Media giants like the Wall Street Journal had a field day announcing the news: “Tale of Stinky Extraterrestrials Stirs Up UFO Crowd in Brazil.”
Reportedly covered in a viscous oily substance during his takedown of the red-eyed curiosity, Chereze checked into a hospital in February ‘96 with a faltering immune system, then succumbed to mysterious infection. Twenty-six years later, Fox’s team attempted to reach retired corporal Eric Lopes, who was with Chereze during the capture and drove them both to the hospital. From a second story residential window outside of town, Lopes refused to answer their questions and threatened to open fire on them for trespassing.
James Fox, who made four trips to Brazil over 12 years in an effort to pull it all together, may have boxed himself into a corner with this one. The “MoC” ending feels more urgent and incomplete than his other films, yet Varginha’s smoking guns are just as elusive today as they were when Bill Clinton was president. But moving on to an unrelated project doesn’t seem like an option.
Fox says he’s getting a contract for a deeper dive, which is baiting the hook for authentic photos and videos of the doomed crew with a $200,000 reward. Military eyewitnesses insist visual records exist. Will we see the proof? “We are very close,” he says.
James Fox has only himself to blame now for setting unreasonable expectations. We’re waiting already.
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