| “The day the sun didn’t come up was so surreal. I mean, it was literally apocalyptic. There was this orange glow in the sky all day, the sky was orange and dark and everybody was walking around like they were in some matrix. It was eerie and spooky and unsettling, and it was like, let’s get the hell out of here, man, we can’t even breathe fresh air.”
James Fox is doing the phoner from somewhere in Arizona, where the choking ashes from multiple conflagrations near his home in
By Billy Cox
northern California aren’t filtering through the seams and powdering the pillows. He and his family left the state a couple of weeks ago; with any luck, the weather will have taken a more rational turn when they return home in November.
This is a huge moment for the director of “The Phenomenon,” which is premiering online today following 7½ years of soul-searching and turmoil during its bumpy production schedule. The documentary – Fox’s fourth on UFOs – is drawing rave endorsements from some of its featured subjects, including the likes of Bill Richardson, John Podesta, Chris Mellon, Jacques Vallee (“the most credible documentary ever made about UFOs”) and Luis Elizondo. But, after being plagued by budget shortfalls, transient partnerships, the collapse of a major distribution agreement that might’ve translated the film into 50 languages and opened in nearly 200 countries, and (of course) COVID-19, Fox sounds exhausted by the ordeal.
“I’m not trying to sound melodramatic, but that film nearly killed me. In every way,” he says. “Mentally, physically, psychologically, like I was in the ring with a monster and I was literally just trying to survive to the next round.”
There’s a load to unpack in this 101-minute treatment of The Great Taboo, and enough material in storage for an additional five-part mini-series. But maybe the greatest source of Fox’s anxiety was the ending, which culminates with a textbook Close Encounter of the Third Kind incident involving African schoolkids in 1994. If UFO hardware, videos and radar tracks get clogged in the windpipes of the American mainstream, purported interactions with the voyagers themselves are the subculture’s gaudy emetics. When he first heard about the faceoff, Fox’s instinct was to run the other way.
“If you’ve seen any of my work, you know I don’t do CE-3 stories, I cover CE-1 and CE-2,” he recalls. “And knowing full well that most of the high-profile officials I interviewed for the film wanted to see the whole documentary before they signed off on it, I knew that going there would be a slippery slope, and incredibly challenging.”
Fox learned about the Zimbabwe playground incident in the 1990s, when he was “naïve enough” to think he could cop an interview with Steven Spielberg. Spielberg’s intermediary, a mutual friend, got back to Fox and told him Mr. Hollywood wasn’t interested in chatting. However, she added, “he does want you to know there’s an incredibly compelling landing case in Africa and you should look into it.
“And I thought, there’s no way a UFO could land in broad daylight at a school, where the occupants could get out and interact with children, without the entire world knowing about it. And I thought, if I was gonna dismiss it that quickly, the general public was gonna dismiss it even quicker.”
But after taking a look at the footage recorded in the immediate aftermath, with the young eyewitnesses struggling to make sense of what they saw, Fox was a fish on a hook, and with a major dilemma: How to get the most credible authorities in his documentary to consent to participate in a film that ends with a CE-3 kicker? “To have to cut any of them out because of this,” he says, “would’ve been devastating.”
None bailed. In fact, off-the-record accounts of high-strangeness imparted to Fox by some of those same folks suggested that maybe what happened in Zimbabwe was more palatable than he initially believed: “What I learned from meetings with some of these high-level people shocked me, in terms of the evidence they’ve seen, and the evidence that’s not been released. I think about this almost every day. And as (retired Senator) Harry Reid says in the movie, what ended up on the front page of the New York Times (12/16/17) is just the tip of the iceberg.”
Among the angles in Fox’s odyssey that will likely never see the light of day is how he managed to nail down the Zimbabwe story. He promised never to air that part of the journey, but the way it happened reinforces Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous truism, “There is no limit to what can be accomplished if it doesn’t matter who gets the credit.” Because with one stroke of generosity that will not appear in the credits, “The Phenomenon” was allowed to become something more than just another UFO tale.
“Now that I’m a dad,” says Fox, who has a 6-year-old son, “I look at children differently. I care about their future. There’s a very powerful environmental message in this film. I didn’t create it, I just highlighted it.
“We need congressional hearings. This is not a pie-in-the-sky idea, this is something that’s realistically possible, based on some of the meetings I’ve been in. And the only way we’re gonna get any traction with elected officials is to rattle their cages. They need their constituents to rattle their cages. That’s it.”
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