The Tribeca Film Festival 2024: They’re Here Bridges a Desire For Transcendence and The Extraterrestrial

Interview with Pacho Velez and Daniel Claridge

The UFO and extraterrestrial being represent more than a conglomerate of fear and speculation, that usually results in an image of a circular metallic ship and a green specimen with abyss-black eyes. There is almost a universal longing to definitively confront something larger than us, occupying the very same universe yet existing without our complete confirmation. Whether you believe in aliens or not, Pacho Velez and Daniel Claridge’s new documentary film They’re Here which had its world premiere at The 2024 Tribeca Film Festival, is bound to captivate in an intrinsically human way. Interviewing an eclectic group of subjects, many of who’ve witnessed UFO encounters, the film positions itself as an outlet for expression and discovery. Claridge’s and Velez’s cinematography and directorial skills meld together in vivid shots and fascinating conversations with UFO experts and everyday individuals whose lives are upended by an otherworldly experience. Though the extraterrestrial serves as a focal point for many of the discussions, They’re Here ultimately strives to elucidate the innate desire so many of us share to escape the mundane and come face to face with the existential. 

Dave Rivera in They’re Here

Q. Have UFOs always been of interest to you? Or did something specific happen, maybe even an event similar to what the film’s subjects have experienced, that led you to make this film?

A. We’ve never had a compelling sighting ourselves. But I think that says more about who we are [and] our general privilege and level of life satisfaction. As with a religious experience, or a ghostly visitation from a dead in-law, UFOs mostly appear to those who need to see them. And unlike the characters in the film, Dan and I are not hungry enough for an experience like that. One that will radically alter the trajectory of our lives and the limits of our reality. 


Q. How did you go about finding your subjects? What were some of the challenges you faced when scouting participants for the films?

A. We found people through the tangle of UFO events and organizations that dot upstate New York. For instance, we met Cookie Stringfellow, one of the main characters, at the grand reopening of the Pine Bush UFO and Paranormal Museum. We met Cheryl Costa, America’s premiere UFO statistician, after reading articles about UFOs that she’d written for The Syracuse New Times (Syracuse’s old alt-weekly). Other folks, like Twon Woods, a comedian who wanted to integrate his UFO sighting into his comedy routine, we met through the Reddit group r/UFOs. 

With every character, the biggest challenge is always building trust. It would have been easy for us to make fun of these folks. They knew that too. So they were understandably wary about sharing their stories with us. They wanted to be sure that even if we didn’t believe in UFOs exactly, we believed in them. We respected their personal integrity and we accepted that they had experienced something life-changing, which had launched them on a journey of discovery.


Q. A blurb for the film states, “The film illuminates the longing for transcendent experience in the modern world.” How does this quote encapsulate the intentions of They’re Here?

A. For us, UFOs feel like a modern version of an age-old human need to find meaning and specialness outside of ourselves. Since the beginning of humanity, people have always seen weird lights in the sky. It’s just part of being human. But the stories that we tell ourselves about these lights have changed. Instead of Greek Gods, or angels, now we see extraterrestrial visitors. So we made a film about people who have seen UFOs. But it’s also a film about people who are trying to make sense of their potentially transcendent experiences. Will they settle back into their old routines? Or will they be able to use their encounters in order to change their lives? 

In this sense, Dave Rivera’s journey is probably the most emblematic one. He’s lived in New York his entire life with his siblings and mom, and he works at a local gas station. When he sees the UFO, it invests his life with a sense of mystery and magic. His journey to understand the mystery causes him to step back and reconsider his circumstances, and he ultimately makes a dramatic choice to leave his old life behind. That’s what we mean by transcendent experience – an event that shakes a person out of their default mode and radically alters their view of themselves. In a way, it’s hard to imagine that Dave would have seen the UFO (or would have even been looking) if he didn’t desire this kind of shake-up on some level.


Q. Talk about the use of visual effects in the film. How does it strengthen the narrative and contribute to the film’s distinct energy? 

A. Usually, in a UFO documentary film, visual effects are used as a way to reenact events reported by the characters in the film. We’ve all seen episodes of Unsolved Mysteries or Ancient Aliens where this happens: a character tells a story about an encounter and that event is recreated by means of visual effects. As audience members, we don’t “believe” the visual effects are reality, we believe that we’re viewing some kind of creative reconstruction of the character’s memory or imagination (or some mix of the two). The point here is that the visual effects in these shows are happening on a different level of reality than interviews and any observational footage of the characters’ daily lives, which is understood to be recordings of real events, real conversations, [and] the mundane stuff of daily life. 

In our film, we liked the idea of making a documentary that blurred the line between the documentary reality and the characters’ subjective experiences of UFOs. When does one start and the other end? Our goal was to more faithfully represent the lived experience of our characters by showing the world as they see it. They’re all true believers and so UFO visitations are real for them. Or to put it another way, we wanted to make a documentary in which UFO visitations are real and happen in just the ways that our characters say that they do. An extraterrestrial encounter is as much a part of daily life as a meal at the local diner. The tension, or the irony, created by this stance gives the film its distinct energy.


Q. How does They’re Here steer away from traditional forms of documentary storytelling? Is this something you try to incorporate in your films often?

A. We’re both excited about making films that challenge conventional expectations in this way. Most audiences watch documentaries (including UFO programs) to learn objective “facts” about a subject matter. But we think documentaries can also be about subjective truths, including memories, fantasies, hopes, and perceptions. We think that a film about these things makes for a more open-ended and interesting viewing experience.  


Q. One of the film’s subjects Steve Falcone created his own extraterrestrial-themed board game U.F.O.ria. Have either of you played the game? What was your reaction to it?

A. U.F.O.ria, Steve’s board game, is an amazing, creative work. We’ve played it a bunch of times and we love it. The game is not so dissimilar from an indie film where there may be a few rough elements here or there, but it has such heart because it was produced out of Steve’s genuine love for the themes within it. His authorship is obvious in every design choice. You can actually pick up a copy here

Steve Falcone in They’re Here 

Q. Talk about working with MUFON, a prominent organization featured in the film that aims to draw scientific conclusions when reports of UFO sightings emerge.

A. MUFON is a nationwide organization that does their best to track every UFO sighting in the country. It’s mostly a volunteer organization and people are attracted to it because it’s one of the best places to discuss UFOs without fear of ridicule or hostile questioning. They take their work very seriously and many members are accredited scientists and engineers. Since we were more interested in the intuitive and subjective side of UFOs, their approach always felt a bit too rational and logical for us to place them at the heart of our film. But we appreciated their rigor and methodology.


Q. What do you think fosters the resistance and conversely, the acceptance of UFOs and extraterrestrial life in our society? How does this film challenge those preconceptions?

A. I think that starting at some point in the 1940s, the UFO question got framed as a matter for scientific investigation. Their existence/nonexistence seemed like something to be settled with proof (navy videos, evidence from crash sites, etc.). And that’s led to their current contentious position in our society. We think that belief provides a better framework for investigating UFOs. For instance, Jesus “appears” to people all the time without triggering a raft of scientific investigations and congressional panels. 

We understand intuitively that these encounters are as much about the witnesses’ internal circumstances as they are about anything hovering in the air in front of them. Hopefully, They’re Here challenges our society’s fixation on approaching the UFO issue scientifically. Because as long as there are true believers in these encounters, science will never settle the question satisfactorily. As Marty Snow, one of the UFO investigators says about UFO photography, “Fuzzy is normal.”

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