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East End Film Festival: The Visit

July 7, 2015

FestivalsFilm + EntertainmentReview | by Francesco Cerniglia


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The Visit is a documentary with a difference – chiefly, that none of what it documents has ever actually happened, and perhaps never will.

The film takes as its subject the hypothetical arrival of an alien craft on Earth – not to explore science fictional excitement or action, but instead to examine the very real agencies and institutes set up to handle that exact situation.

Writer/director Michael Madsen visits experts from the United Nations, SETI and various universities and asks them to imagine – and in some cases act out – their response to the unexpected arrival. This talking head footage is interspersed with staged sequences involving the military or simply the startled reactions of pedestrians and bystanders, frequently employing slow motion and visual trickery for dramatic effect.

One of the film’s most successful strands see three current and former British government advisors discuss the political response to the situation from a nation-state level. Even though all three know the scenario is fictional, Madsen still manages to capture their slow journey from bemusement, through to confident attempts to handle the situation, and finally to a sort of on-camera existential crisis as it all gets a bit too much for them.

The film’s furthest remove from the documentary format sees engineer Chris Welch volunteer to be the first to enter the craft. What follows, revealed in stages throughout the film, is a carefully shot sequence of Welch, encased in a hazmat suit, making his poetically shot exploration as he narrates the entirely fictional journey. Documentary this is not, but it remains captivating even at its greatest distance from reality.

There’s still plenty of interest to be found in The Visit’s more traditional touches too though. Madsen recruits unusual subjects, including the ethics advisor to the French space agency and an expert on space law, to ask, and more occasionally answer, questions that even the most thoughtful science fiction rarely dares to tread near. Complex visuals and immaculate sound editing complete this frequently odd, often insightful, and never dull viewing experience.

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Perhaps the film’s most unsettling touch is also its simplest: throughout the proceedings, the extraterrestrial visitor is addressed directly in the second-person, the audience itself surrogates for the role of observer of the human race.

And, ultimately, it’s humanity that The Visit is really interested in, as concerns about alien intent give way to the real fear that it’s us who will ruin any first encounter, that fear and tribalism will triumph over our better nature.

The Visit screens tonight at Hackney Picturehouse at 9:10pm and on July 10th at Stratford Picturehouse at 6:30pm

You can consult the full programme and buy tickets on the festival’s official website

The East End Film Festival runs until July 12th

Dominic Preston