No Such Thing as a Coincidence: A ‘Great Mysteries’ interview with filmmaker Robert Alcock

As I was getting ready to do my annual online Halloween radio broadcast, I was thinking about what special audio features I could make for it. The majority of the show was going to be music, but I still needed to have a few interesting audio pieces to help break it up.

I had a few ideas floating around in my head: One was to cover the 40th anniversary of a famous Italian horror film Profondo Rosso, a film with an amazing soundtrack by the band Goblin; another was to interview a colleague about ‘gong-si’ films — the bouncing Chinese vampires unique to Hong Kong cinema.

But as October approached I realised that I didn’t have as much as time as I thought I did, and that I would have to just focus on the one thing.

And so I decided to go with an earlier story I had thought of, one about UFOs and science-fiction. A friend from work, Robert Alcock had mentioned to me while we were travelling home together one afternoon that he used to collect UFO clippings as a kid. This was during the 1970s, when strange stuff like UFOs actually got a mention in the paper.

I had grown up about a decade later than Robert, and caught the tail-end of this UFO obsession. By this time the focus had shifted from UFO sightings to actual alien abductions, thanks to a book called Communion by Whitley Streiber which a friend and I had scared ourselves stupid with in year eight. This new wave of interest eventually broke its banks when The X-Files TV series came out in 1994, and you couldn’t go anywhere without seeing that archetypal alien face with its black pupil-less eyes.

But as I made my audio feature with Robert, I realised that there had been an earlier critical mass of UFO stories, peaking in the late seventies with the Steven Spielberg film Close Encounters of the Third Kind.‘SOMETHING SHINING’ — Robert’s Story

In 1978, a young pilot from Melbourne, Frederick Valentich, disappeared while flying over the Bass Strait — a stretch of water that separates the island state of Tasmania from the Australian mainland. Just before disappearing, he reported seeing lights around his plane, and despite a lengthy search over the following days, neither he or the plane were ever recovered.

Because of the sensational nature of this story it went all around the world, attracting media speculation about whether his plane had been whisked away by UFOs. This was late in 1978 — the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind had been released in Australia earlier that year and was still fresh in everyone’s minds.

My friend Robert Alcock, who was about eighteen at this time, developed an ongoing interest in this story.

Robert from a recent trip to Tasmania, 2015 (Copyright Robert Alcock)

Growing up in Queanbeyan, Canberra, a regional area of Australia, Robert had developed a childhood love of the stars, buying binoculars and wondering about the mysteries of the universe. He had also enjoyed watching TV shows like UFO and The Time Tunnel.

The first book he read from beginning to end was Alive, about the plane crash in the Andes where the survivors were forced to eat each other . His first great success at school was for a project about the Bermuda Triangle, for which he received high marks.

He also had an interest in filmmaking and the visual arts. After finishing high school, Robert was accepted into the prestigious Sydney film school, AFTRS for the film director’s course, which later led him to work as a freelance filmmaker for SBS television, Australia’s national multicultural broadcaster.

Realising that his research might be of interest to them— the fact that Frederick Valentich’s family had originally migrated from Italy to Australia — led him to pitch his own idea for a documentary. Robert also had a mother who had come from Malta, which would help him to empathize with the Valentich family.

So in 1989, he made a half-hour documentary, called, Something Shining’ for the Australian Mosaic series.

Instead of rehashing the original story, his documentary delved deeper into the experience of Frederich Valentich’s family, on what the experience had been been like, and how the media coverage had caused them more heartache than just the loss alone.

Personally, the documentary also gave Robert a chance to tie a lot of his childhood interests together — crashed planes, UFOs, the Bermuda triangle—but required him to balance his interests with the reality of the story,  that someone real had gone missing.FINDING THE RIGHT MUSIC

As was I editing the interview I was also trying to prepare for my Halloween broadcast, a show that would run for about 18 hours. I was very busy, but also had a ton of music swirling around in my head.

There was one song that was sticking with me, ‘Silly Confusion’ that I had listened to a few weeks before. It had come out on a special vinyl EP release called Extra Terrestial. Although it didn’t occur to me straight away, it was the perfect song for my feature!

‘Lights in the Sky’. An artwork from the Electronic Encounters release.

There was also another track that balanced this one out, a highly atmospheric one called ‘Empty Runway’ by The Soulless Party.

It had come from Electronic Encounters (available as a free download) a special tribute album to the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind —featuring mainly electronic musicians reworking musical themes and ideas from the Steven Spielberg film, including the classic tonal alien call-sign.

When I contacted the composer of Empty Runway and told him about my project, he was happy for me to use the track — but he also let me know that he too, was familiar with the Frederick Valentich case, which was a nice touch.

In fact, there was many of these while making this story (including one great one which you are about to land on!), so I had a real feeling of everything falling into place — that themes spanning many decades were all linking together, as I finished off this feature.OUR OWN WEIRD MOMENT

The broadcast went to air, and I didn’t really get the response I had hoped for, despite plenty of spruiking leading up to it. But the deadline had helped me to get this smaller audio feature done — and to be honest, I didn’t realise how many of my own interests it would cover, until I started listening back to everything Robert had talked about.

The strange moment that Robert and I had, actually occured while we were recording the interview, meeting up in a Turkish cafe in the innercity suburb of Newtown near where Robert lived.

We were sitting outside in the courtyard, and Robert was pulling a plastic folder of photocopied clippings out of his bag. They were reviews of his documentary and documents connected with his film work. One of them at the top caught my eye — just the date, ‘October 1978.’ We were in the month of October, and I was about a week away from my 40th birthday.

Then I saw the 12. But because I was reading the article upside down, it would have had to have been 21 — the 21st.

Then I looked at my watch; it was also the 21st.

So, the same date — October 21st — but just a different year.

When I told Robert about this, I could see that he was very surprised. It took a moment for it to dawn us, but we were actually making our recording on exactly the same date that Frederick Valentich had gone missing. He would have been just getting ready to set off on his flight, thirty-seven years ago!

Neither of us had planned this, either. Not even unconsciously. We did the typical thing of organising a date, and then postponing it because we were too busy, and then picking a new date when we were both free.

One of the final lines on my recording is Robert saying, “I like coincidences,” with his distinctively wry laugh, adding: “We were meant to do this interview!”

And I absolutely agree!

Cape Otway Lighthouse image courtesy of Papier Mouse Designs. This article originally appeared on Medium.

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