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Thread: John Shepherd Spent 30 years Trying to Contact Extraterrestrials [Documentary]

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    Lightbulb John Shepherd Spent 30 years Trying to Contact Extraterrestrials [Documentary]

    John Shepherd Spent 30 years Trying to Contact Extraterrestrials [Documentary]

    • John Shepherd spent 30 years trying to contact extraterrestrials by broadcasting music millions of miles into space. After giving up the search he makes a different connection here on Earth.
    • A rural electronics whiz broadcasts radio signals into the stars and monitors for signs of alien civilizations while enduring a lonely personal life.
    'We’re all trying to make contact': the story of a moving new Netflix film

    John Was Trying To Contact Aliens compresses a 30-year search for extraterrestrial life and the universal human drive for connection into 16 minutes

    If you were to contact extraterrestrial life, what would you say? How would you make yourself understood? What context is universal? To John Shepherd, these are more than hypotheticals; they were choices with clear and practical answers. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, Shepherd conducted ambitious, bespoke solo attempts to message the unknown from his home in northern Michigan. The universal context, he decided, was non-commercial music – Afrobeat, jazz, reggae – blasted into space through an elaborate collection of machines that resembled a spaceship slowly engulfing a cottage.

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    In John Was Trying to Contact Aliens, a tender, grounded short film premiering on Netflix this month, Shepherd reflects on his decades-long infatuation with the potential of outer space – a search for meaning fulfilled, at least partially, in his small corner of Earth. The 16-minute film, which won the short film jury award at Sundance in January, finds Shepherd at home, still in northern Michigan, surrounded by machines that seem more at home now in a spoof of a 1960s sci-fi movie. “And I’ll start it up,” he says, sitting before a wall of knobs. He’s bearded, hair in a loose ponytail, equal parts shy and eager. A few turns of the dials, some wavy lines, a drum of electric humming, and the search resumes.


    Shepherd was, it appears in the film, somewhat of a local media star in the era of sci-fi movies and space capers, having endeavored to contact (the operative word in the title is “trying”) extraterrestrial beings. Adopted and raised by his grandparents, Shepherd was interested at an early age by what could be out there – an interest that, when articulated, resembles the yearnings of many others closer to Earth. “My interest is in finding out the unknown, and the unknown is just that – unknown,” he says in an old news clip that plays in the film’s credits. “And you search, and you continue searching, because of your desire, because you know there’s something there.”

    Shepherd started building electrical equipment – boxy, tall, bedecked in dials and screens – in his teens, with the help of his grandfather. Soon, the equipment, which Shepherd called “Project Strat” (Special Telemetry Research and Tracking) took up a whole bedroom, then the living room. An old photo captures the comic scope of Shepherd’s work: the right half of the photo could be a Nasa lab – Shepherd with his back to the camera, turning dials on a wall-length machine whose screen squiggles with activity – while in the left half, his grandmother knits while his grandfather reclines, as if there’s nothing to see here.
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    This is the photo that first captured film-maker Matthew Killip’s eye. He was reading a book on UFOs, and was struck by the contrast of the Shepherd home – part contained scene of American comfort, part ambitious reach into space. Killip, a British film editor living in Brooklyn, pieced together Shepherd’s long history of space-reaching through YoutTube searches and old newspaper clips. Soon, he was on a plane to northern Michigan. “I just packed my camera and flew out,” he told the Guardian. Working on his own, no budget or distributor set in place, Killip began filming a few hours after meeting Shepherd.


    Killip was interested in extraterrestrial life less as scientific inquiry than cultural phenomenon – “if you make a film about someone trying to contact aliens, there’s an in-built narrative problem, which is that they don’t contact aliens,” he said. But he found Shepherd’s lifelong interest in contacting someone, or something, in outer space to be “deeply romantic”, and more universal than a guy rigging thousands of dollars of radio and electrical equipment in his grandparents’ living room might seem. “We’re all sort of sending out a message hoping that someone else will pick it up and understand us and understand who we are,” Killip said. “We’re all trying to make contact.” John’s story, then, brings “the search for love, or a place in the world, or a partner that recognizes you, or a family that recognizes you, into a kind of cosmic context”.


    Ultimately, Shepherd met his match: a mirror to himself also named John, also bearded and long-haired. The two still live in northern Michigan, and while the radio broadcasts into space have ceased in recent years – the equipment is expensive, Shepherd’s interests closer to Earth – his sense of curiosity remains intact.

    As does Shepherd’s intimate, expansive sense of hope, one that feels as poignant in the hellfire of 2020 as it does in the archival footage of Shepherd calling out to the unknown (“If you ETs are out there, we’d like you to tune in again tomorrow night at 9pm for more cultural music,” Shepherd once signed off into the void using radio towers and enough humor to imagine aliens tuning into a radio show on eastern time). Shepherd’s story offers hope, said Killip, that “whether on Earth or through outer space, one can connect meaningfully in one’s life.”

    Thirty years of trying to contact aliens left him with “little hard data”, Shepherd admits in the film, but the process itself was creative, generative, connective enough. “It filled my life,” he says. “It gave it something, meaning.”
    • John Was Trying to Contact Aliens is now available on Netflix
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    Last edited by ExomatrixTV; 5th October 2020 at 14:08.
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