GIRAF Animation Festival streaming Canada-wide Nov. 19-28

The Visit

"When you’re out in the bush, especially at night with no light pollution, something shiny and bright tends to stick out."

A girl stares out her bedroom window
A girl stares out her bedroom window

NFB films can't be embedded, so you'll have to watch The Visit on their site.

Lisa Jackson's The Visit isn't a radically unusual UFO story. Based on a real interview with Barry and Kimowan Ahenakew, it tells the story of a 1996 sighting at the Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation in Saskatchewan. The main beats are fairly familiar—an isolated location, animals on alert, a strange light in the sky that doesn't seem to move with the rest of the stars. The narration is surprisingly calm, given the encounter it's describing, and the animation by Jody Kramer has a pleasantly loose feel, drawn in thick, inky lines that look like they could be lifted directly from a well-used sketchbook.

The story takes a turn, though, when the RCMP leave and the narrator chooses a different way to approach the encounter. Rather than viewing the UFO as an inscrutable other, he chooses to pray, burn sweetgrass, and sing—and the response was immediate. There's definitely an element of Close Encounters of the Third Kind to the scene, but where that film arrived at musical communication through layers of scientific analysis, The Visit gets there through simple intuition, and a desire to take part in a connective act—a sense of connection only heightened by emerging from traditional song.

The matter-of-fact tone of the film's storytelling might be the result of an especially unflappable narrator, but it may also have a cultural component. In a 2020 interview with Nation News, Ernest Webb, the creator of the APTN series Indians and Aliens, talks about the prevalence of otherworldly encounters in certain Indigenous cultures, from the belief in certain Cree communities that their ancestors arrived from a starry cluster in the Peiades, to an Ojibwa oral history of a "Skyman" visiting their community half a millennium ago, to the simple fact that "When you’re out in the bush, especially at night with no light pollution, something shiny and bright tends to stick out."

Given those histories, the UFO encounter takes on a more spiritual character, not just a visit from an unknown stranger, but maybe a reunion. It's that context, and that blending of beliefs, that give The Visit film its unique place in the UFO-story landscape.

Jackson's film was created as part of an NFB project called Vistas, which partnered with APTN to create 13 films from 13 Indigenous creators, mostly mixing documentary and animation to tell their stories. The results range from Melanie Jackson's stop-motion hoop dance Dancers of the Grass, to Doug, Jr. Smarch's late-night drive in Ignition, to a short based on the Mi'kmaq legend (Little Thunder) and a glimpse into a hidden world courtesy of award-winning filmmaker and comic artist Diane Obomsawin.

dir: Lisa Jackson
syn: This animated short tells the true story of a Cree family's strange encounter one winter night, which results in a conversation beyond words. Vistas is a series of 13 short films on nationhood from 13 Indigenous filmmakers from Halifax to Vancouver. It was a collaborative project between the NFB and APTN to bring Indigenous perspectives and stories to an international audience.

2009