Film Reviews

Review: ‘Behind the Curve’

Hot Docs 2018


Behind the Curve
(USA, 96 minutes)
Dir: Daniel J. Clark
Programme: Special Presentations. (World Premiere)

In Behind the Curve, director Daniel Clark could have gone for savage mockery in the depiction of people who believe that planet earth is not a “spinning ball flying through space.” Instead, Clark’s amiable doc is affectionate toward its characters, who have devoted their lives to the proposition that the world is flat, sometimes conducting elaborate experiments to prove it.

Clark’s tone, enhanced by witty animation, recalls Jonathan Demme’s humane approach to American nuttiness as he presents us with a gallery of West Coast eccentrics. They might have emotional problems, one of the film’s expert commentators, a psychologist, suggests. But they go about their obsession with charmingly cheerful, unstoppable energy. You don’t see too much rancour. The Flat Earthers tend to be articulate, media savvy, and talented in some way. They juggle balls on hammers, run You Tube interview shows, or expertly craft woodwork “domes” that illustrate their view of the world.

These apparently comfortable middle class people are also conspiracy theorists who believe we are being hoodwinked by “the powers that should not be.” NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), which has a stake in concepts like the roundness of the planet and gravity, is the archenemy. The Flat Earthers insist that NASA happens to echo the Hebrew word for “deceive,” which is not true.

In a key scene, two of the film’s principal characters, Mark Sargent and Patricia Steer, a redhead who obviously knows how sexy she is, visit the NASA museum and gleefully shout Flat Earth! Mark and Patricia once flirted their way toward a romantic connection, but nowadays their relationship tilts more toward platonic love. According to one commentator, Steer is a temptress, typical of “narcissistic psychopathic women” who lure people into the movement, which has grown surprisingly widespread. The doc itemizes flat earth dating sites, an array of merchandise, and growing media attention.

Behind the Curve opens on Mark, whose dress code favours shorts, T-shirts, and baseball caps, at home on Whidbey Island staring at Seattle in the distance. If the world is a globe, why can’t you see a curvature? he asks. A movie-loving Monty Python fan, Mark believes we are living in something like a terrarium, or a film set. He feels like Jim Carrey in The Truman Show, conned into thinking a fake reality is real. Above the clouds, there is a “display system.” Mark discusses these ideas with his mother, who questions them in scenes revealing a touchingly affectionate relationship.

The mysterious “controllers” at the top of “the grid” want to keep everyone ignorant. The NASA con job is somehow connected to various bugaboos: dangerous vaccines, chem trails, GMO foods, and a “transgender push in the media,” as one young guy puts it. The controllers might be Masons, the Vatican, or Jews.

Despite his humanistic approach, Clark sees in his subjects the danger of encouraging ignorance in others and the threat they present to themselves. The film spins off into making points about the fragility of belief systems. These people have a need to challenge authority, but as the psychologist says, there’s a difference between scepticism and denial of reality. Behind the Curve successfully draws you into the lives of people who could be alienating and makes you care about them. It’s funny and sad as it reveals quirks and contradictions of human nature.

Hot Docs runs April 26 to May 6. Please visit hotdocs.ca for more info.

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Maurie Alioff writes about movies for publications off- and on-line, and is a screenwriter currently collaborating on a documentary featuring Bob Marley’s granddaughter while researching other Jamaica-related projects, including a magical-realist crime story drawing on stories he hears on the island. He has written for radio, journals and TV, taught screenwriting and been a contributing editor to various magazines.

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