Daniel J. Clark / USA / 2018 / 96 mins
Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, as part of Right Now Film Festival
“They’re actually fairly normal – at least some of them,” says physicist Hannalore Gerling-Dunsmore, referring to the Flat Earthers who are the subject of Daniel J. Clark’s excellent documentary Behind the Curve.
The quote sums up the film’s bemused take on this community, which Clark’s unobtrusive narrative explores with intelligence and wit. Screened this week at Inverness’ Eden Court, as part of the varied and innovative Right Now Film Festival, Behind the Curve really lifts the dome on the weird but fascinatingly obsessive world of Flat Earthers. The film rattles along enjoyably, skilfully edited to interweave several narrative threads: the teasing will they/won’t they relationship between two celebrities of Flat Earthism, Mark Sargent and Patricia Steere; a major 2017 conference of the movement in Raleigh, North Carolina; and the movement’s experiments to disprove the “myth” that the earth is, in fact, curved and spherical. Constantly on the move, the “characters” we encounter are shown to have lives dominated by their beliefs, their daily crusade a brave battle against what they see as sinister forces.
These threads are constantly book-ended by a bank of scientific opinion, as physicists queue up to express dismay at the swamp of misunderstood high school science, half-baked conspiracy theories and all-round delusion that compose the Flat Earthers’ beliefs. And Clark’s ingenious structure both creates an investment in Sargent and Steere, the nominal protagonists, and also entertains us through the intriguing, weird narrative of Flat Earthism’s growth despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Unlike, say, Louis Theroux’s visible presence throughout his documentary stories of the wacky and deluded, where his diplomatic comments provide context and overview, Clark lets everyone speak for themselves in frank, direct-to-camera testimony. And this is one of the keys to the film’s success. On the one hand, we hear Sargent, Steere, engineer Bob Knodel, and myriad others justifying their beliefs as a brave stand against a bullying, oppressive “system” which imposes “Scientism” on ordinary citizens, indoctrinating all of us, and manipulating the “truth”. On the other hand, Gerling-Dunsmore, Per Espen Stoknes, Joe Pierre and other actual scientists lucidly point to how Flat Earthers’ identities as part of a mutually supportive, like-minded community are bound up in what is, effectively, a cult. The reputations of some, YouTube celebrity of others and entire lifestyles of many depend on the movement and its online promulgation. The psychological and sociological basis of the movement are subtly insinuated into Clark’s narrative, even as the “conclusive” experiments fail spectacularly and, to the Flat Earthers, bafflingly.
The film succeeds because of these brilliant juxtapositions, which maximise the effect of its subtle digs. The “libertarian”, even alt-right tendency of Flat Earthism is allowed to sit ominously on the back burner: speakers link their beliefs to doubts about NASA (the Hebrew for lies, apparently), public education systems, vaccination programmes, evolution, and so on. Nevertheless this is, throughout, a respectful piece of documentary work. Clark’s lively film uses animation sequences, a breezy score by Bryan Ricker and a great soundtrack of contemporary sounds to engage us in its interwoven narratives. This humane insight into a fascinating (and perhaps somewhat disturbing) phenomenon is well worth a viewing.