Two new documentaries came out this week, and I thought about reviewing them separately. Documentaries are different from fiction. We don't look to them for nuance; we expect veracity. They aren't structured as analogies, to simply enjoy or reflect upon. Documentaries aren't open to interpretation; they are the interpretation, and tend to be practical (like Frederick Wiseman), made with panache (like Errol Morris), or political (like Michael Moore or Laura Poitras).
All of which is a verbose justification for considering these two films in the same review. Put two objects together, no matter how different they appear, and the human mind will make a connection. These two films connect in terms of 1) politics, 2) missiles, and 3) man's (in)humanity to man.
Aliens Uncovered: The Golden Record is part of a series, preceded by Aliens Uncovered: ET or Man Made? (2022) and ends on a cliffhanger, to be continued in Aliens Uncovered: Origins. These are desktop productions, stitched together out of stock and found footage, and take us through recent sightings of UFOs (now called UAPs, for "unexplained aerial phenomena").
The Golden Record is neither optimistic nor ominous, but informational. Its first half deals with the politics (point 1) of the government's space program circa 1977. The Golden Record of the title is a phonograph disc launched by Voyager missile (point 2) into space by NASA in the 1970s, meant to emit sounds typical of life on Earth to any extraterrestrial intelligence that intercepts them. This follows up the famous diagram of anatomically correct humanoids, sent previously, a benign message of peace to the universe.
Historical footage (it's good to see Carl Sagan again) gives way to reenactment over actual sound recordings of witnesses to two prominent sightings, one in Michigan in 1994, and other known as The Phoenix Lights in 1997. While the source of some of its footage is dubious (authentic weather maps give way to hovering-saucer simulations), Aliens Uncovered: The Golden Record seems to be a sincere attempt to address the phenomena.
UFO mythology is the gift that keeps on giving: recent revelations in the news will surely fuel future installments of the series. Aliens Uncovered is written, directed, and narrated by a fellow named Clive Christopher. It's available on VOD, which is appropriate, but its poster promises more than it delivers. Those expecting a special effects sci-fi extravaganza will be disappointed.
As for my point 3, man's (in)humanity to man, the jury is out until we know exactly who or what we're dealing with.
20 Days in Mariupol is the video record of a team of Associated Press journalists who were the only ones on the scene as the first Russian bombs fell (combining politics and missiles). Filmed while dodging bullets, their "you are there" take provides defining images of the war: destruction, dying children, and mass graves in the besieged city.
The footage is harrowing, with some of the most effective passages coming before the explosions: ordinary citizens fret, debate evacuating, and try to contact loved ones. The film dramatically portrays the terrible toll of uncertainty, and the disbelief in man's (in)humanity to man (check). The result is footage that is stirring and portentous.
20 Days in Mariupol's greatest strength is ironically its main problem. The Russian war on Ukraine goes on, as of this writing, which freezes the moment in time. 20 Days in Mariupol is old news. How much worse can it get? Time will tell, may have already told by the time you read this.
20 Days in Mariupol is directed by Mstyslav Chenov, has appeared on PBS Frontline and in some cities has had a brief theatrical release.
Is it fair to review these two documentaries in tandem? Probably not. 20 Days in Mariupol is all too real. Aliens Uncovered: The Golden Record recalls a more optimistic time, when President Jimmy Carter expressed open enthusiasm for the Space Program. (Insert heavy sigh here.) How different the world might have been if we’d gone that direction, emphasizing an appreciation of our place in the cosmos rather than the nefarious acts of greedy men.
Aliens Uncovered: The Golden Record. Directed by Clive Christopher. Produced by Breaking Glass Pictures. 2023. 74 minutes.
20 Days in Mariupol. Directed by Mstyslav Chenov. Produced by Frontline/PBS and the Associated Press. 2023. 94 minutes.