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A Human Thought Experiment in 'The Visit'

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The Visit

This story is part of True/False Conversations, a series of in-depth interviews with the filmmakers of this year’s True/False Fest.  Find the rest of them here or download the podcast on iTunes.

Director Michael Madsen is working on a trilogy of films that he calls “a trilogy on mankind.” The first film, Into Eternity: A Film for the Future, was about the building of a final repository for nuclear waste. He now presents the second in this series, called The Visit, which chronicles the events and conversations that unfold once intelligent, extraterrestrial life has landed on Earth and made contact with mankind.

This documentary is unique in that it details events that have never happened. No aliens have landed on Earth, but real experts –scientists, astrobiologists, the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs and others share the conversations and questions that they would have for these new visitors and about themselves.

Madsen says the film creates the illusion that the audience is the extraterrestrial visitor and puts forward the question, “What is a human being?”

KBIA's Rebecca Smith spoke with Madsen about the film - the idea behind it and some of the challenges he faced while making a film about an event that is unknown and somewhat impossible to imagine. 

So The Visit chronicles mankind’s response to an encounter with extraterrestrial life. Where'd you get the idea for this film?

The idea really comes from that I think the single most significant event for mankind ever to happen would be contact with extraterrestrial life. That would be the most significant thing to happen for us and as a consequence the most interesting thing to look at because it would simply question all the things that we hold to be true about ourselves.

This is the first time I have heard of someone making a documentary about events that haven’t actually happened. How do you go about documenting an event that hasn’t taken place?

The film opens by saying this film documents an event that has never taken place. We don’t have any recorded incidents of encountering intelligent life and so on. So the film says this is a fictitious scenario, but then it goes on to say that yes, the experts are real and the questions are real. The responses are real. And this is what I was trying to explore, in a documentary fashion, because I am interested in the reality within this fictitious scenario and the reality within it, I believe, is that human self-understanding would be shattered.

Since, as you said, there has never been an encounter between mankind and extraterrestrial life, there must have been many challenges to making the film. What were some of the main challenges that you faced?

The main challenge, of course, is to make a film about something that doesn’t exist, that has never happens, and that nobody knows anything about how it would really unfold. So how to, you could say, imagine the unimaginable. That has been a challenge. And it has been a challenge to create a film about, you could say an, alien visitation without showing any aliens, without having an alien, but trying to turn the audience into that very alien.

What would you say was the reasoning or purpose behind making this film?

I don’t work with a purpose or a message, but I am interested in this film as a mirror, a mirror in which to look at ourselves. And of course, this is what I think would happen if we get this contact. I think it will be looking at ourselves, but suddenly through the eyes of a stranger – alien eyes so to say. And I think this is a fantastic vantage point in terms of seeing something about ourselves that we can’t see ourselves just by ourselves.

What do you hope the audience takes away from the film?  

I think there is something deeply human in looking at the sky and thinking is there life out there. It’s a basic human question. And it is a question that is concerned with a kind of a longing I think. A longing to be seen by something else. There is something deeply human in that I think. Because by being seen by something else, you gain existence. I think it is connected to that. So I think that any audience can think about what. So I think that any audience under an earthly sky can think about what this film tries to think about.

Rebecca Smith is a reporter and producer for the KBIA Health & Wealth desk. She was born and raised in Rolla, Missouri, and graduated with degrees in Journalism and Chemistry from Truman State University in May 2014. Rebecca comes to KBIA from St. Louis Public Radio, where she worked as the news intern and covered religion, neighborhood growth and the continued unrest in Ferguson, MO.
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