I recently had the chance to interview Phil Leirness, director of the conspiracy theory fueled documentary The Truth is Out There, and, knowing that I was preparing to view and comment upon his work, one of the questions that I set forth regarded the filmmaker’s response to criticism. Leirness’ belief is that “part of a critic’s job ought to be assessing the work within context of the filmmaker’s aims. Did the film accomplish what the makers of it were setting out to achieve? Too often, we criticize films for what they aren’t, rather than truly assessing them based on what they are.” With that in mind, I tried to watch the film while keeping in mind the intent of both the director and star Dean Haglund.
But what was the intent? The movie follows Dean Haglund, of “X-Files” fame, as he travels the globe speaking with dozens of people about their specific involvement with conspiracy theories. Haglund speaks with some who believe that Reptilian aliens are among us, that 9/11 was an inside job, that science is creating instead of treating disease, that those in power are intentionally harming the public, and much more. Leirness has said that he was interested in the project because he had found, working on his previous film (Karl Rove, I Love You), that he was drawn to subjects that tended to make him angry. But at the same time, he and Haglund had set out to make a movie showing that the search for the TRUTH can be fun. There’s a disconnect, or rather a juxtaposition there, that I believe is where the heart of the film lies.
What immediately struck me about those interviewed in The Truth is Out There is not their bull-headed response to the world at large, often insisting in the reality of bizarre phenomena such as humanoid aliens which secretly control the planet. Instead, I was put off by how almost every interviewee focused on the divide between subjectivity and objectivity. Even while pressing the issue of, say, whether aliens have mated with humans in order to create a half-blood race of super-people, the subjects of this documentary are usually careful to point out that this is their truth, that everybody must seek their own truth. The movie would maybe be better titled Your Truth is Out There. While others might see conspiracy theorists as blind to the facts of reality, stubbornly set in their us-against-them philosophy, the proponents of these theories seem more likely to rail against the dogmatism and certainty of the mainstream populace. They will passionately defend their views, even as they slip into the absurd, but always note that their truth may be different from yours.
Actor Leigh McCloskey illustrates this point by showing Haglund a bookcase filled with the Holy Books of many different world religions and schools of thought. There is a fantastic mural painted on the spines of the books, and as McCloskey removes one item from the shelf he notes that the image on the spine is beautiful on its own, but not complete. It is not until you step back and view the bookshelf in its entirety that the full picture comes into view. To contend that every viewpoint is wonderful and equally valid is, to be frank, total insanity. I can easily see how Leirness would approach this project as diving into ideas that make him angry. But the larger theme of the film, about the richness of the human experience which leads to a wide array of viewpoints on every topic under the sun (“Even within the conspiracy field, why are we drawn to particular stories?” psychotherapist Nicki Monti asks), also begins to come into focus here.
“Some people who watch The Truth Is Out There may want to judge the people Dean meets and interviews on the basis of whether they agree or disagree with them,” Leirness muses. “That judgment will prove difficult, however, for the people with whom Dean speaks are real human beings who come across as more than the sum of the information they have to offer, more than the sum of the conclusions they have drawn, more than the sum of the beliefs they espouse.”
The movie may appear to be about conspiracy theories on its surface, but gradually the film reveals that its true goal is to exhibit these people, not to be seen as delusional or perturbed, or even persuasive. The movie could just as easily have shown the interview subjects alone, discussing their individual quirks and beliefs while speaking directly to the camera. But there’s a reason that Dean Haglund is there, and I don’t believe that the reason is merely to provide a central framework to the narrative. The role of Haglund in the film is to listen, to comment and to question, to engage his interview subjects, no matter their stance. There is never any animosity between the filmmakers and the conspiracy theorists on camera. I can imagine, if I were one of those being questioned, that I would harbor some fears that the footage was intended to be used as a joke against me. That is simply not the case, and at no point in the film does one get the impression that the interview subjects have entertained this notion. It’s about people talking with one another, being honest with one another, appreciating each other’s perspectives (even if they vehemently disagree) and recognizing that each person has some contribution to make to the world.
There’s a point where Dr. Nicki Monti presses Haglund on his own biases and judgments. It is revealed that Haglund believes that everybody should be free to create via artistic expression – more than that – encouraged to. But what if some people are not artistically inclined? Not every human being shares the same interests and concerns as the next person, but every human being does have interests and concerns of their own. “Perhaps the universal truth is what makes us subjective,” says Dr. Bill Tiller of the Institute for Noetic Sciences. Perhaps the fact that we are subjective is the universal truth.
Altogether, The Truth is Out There provides a lot to like. The people interviewed are indeed gregarious and eager to discuss their theories. Spending some time thinking about the film certainly helps to bring light to the subtle ideas hidden within, which helps me sympathize with Leirness’ concern that too many audience members are likely to judge the film for how it plays in the moment. Many great films ask that you consider the concepts presented within; the intellectual ecstasy that comes from finding new ways to approach a subject in order to find deeper meaning is part of the reason that I love taking part in film criticism.
However, I do not think that the film is without flaw. Leirness is aware that the documentary’s run-time can be daunting. When asked if anything was left out of the movie, the director responded, “If something belonged in the finished film, it made it into the finished film. Period. Our running time is 2 hours and 23 minutes because we did not want to shortchange anyone in the film or in the audience.” Because of the film’s independent aesthetic and unique distribution method (it will only be available online at truth-is-out-there.com or at live events), the filmmakers had more freedom to present the completed work that they were most interested in creating. We’ve all heard the phrase “too much of a good thing”, though, and there are certainly scenes that could be excised without losing the heart of the story. At one point, the movie sets aside time to pitch its viewers on Dean Haglund’s Chillpak (a device that cools over-heated computers), although what purpose that serves in relation to the conspiracies is unclear. A conversation with Haglund’s nephew Mark Granger about his use of the psychotropic drug ayahuasca is similarly unnecessary, as it barely relates to the central conceit surrounding conspiracy theories. Every person included in the film has an interesting perspective to divulge, but the film could have been more manageable and gotten the same ideas across.
Concurrently, a lot of my understanding of the film did come from the time that I spent thinking about it in order to begin writing this piece. Again, I return to the way that Leirness has affirmed his belief that “too much emphasis is placed upon how a film plays ‘right here, right now’.” He’s right to a certain extent, but unfortunately a lot of that is just the nature of the medium. A novel, for instance, provides the reader with an opportunity to take a break between chapters, to absorb and contemplate the words within. But a movie runs straight through, and the general audience member is unlikely to spend much time considering the film afterward or even to return to the film – life’s too short! The Truth is Out There tries to provide a “narrative spine for the film” in Haglund’s sessions with Dr. Monti, those moments when the movie turns an introspective eye toward its “star” (as much as a documentary can have a star). The film does bring some basic ideas to light on a cursory viewing, but I do believe that more could have been done to highlight the themes that Leirness and Haglund intended to explore.
The Truth is Out There is an engaging and thoughtful film, and yes there are moments of warm humor. There’s a lot to enjoy just because the people interviewed are friendly and open and Haglund is equally cheerful and inquisitive. But the movie wants to look everywhere, see everything, and the inability to rein in those instincts makes it a challenge to get through the back-half (there’s a weird rise in the score during the scenes with talk-show host Alex Jones that makes it feel like the climax of the film while there’s still 40 minutes left to go, which doesn’t help either). But I stand by my previous statement: there’s a lot to like about this film, just too much.