The Unarians arrived at the Cinefamily in a Buick with a UFO on the roof. “WELCOME, SPACE BROTHERS” was painted on the side. “UFOS ARE REAL” proclaimed a window decal. They were at LA’s premiere cool theater to spread the message of Uriel and fourth dimensional science, and they were doing it as they had done it for decades - with mind-blowing and weird educational films.
If it weren’t for those films Unarius might be just another dime-a-dozen New Age UFO cult. They have the usual beliefs - Atlantis and Lemuria, past life regression, Space Brothers who are waiting for humanity to evolve in order to invite us to the interplanetary confederation - but starting in the late 1970s they also had an obsession with video. The group, under the leadership of Rose Norman, aka Uriel, made hundreds of videos about the secret history of the universe and the science of enlightenment, videos that played on public access cable channels across the country and became the pride of many VHS tape traders.
The Unarius videos are astonishing simply as outsider art. The make-up and costumes in them are psychedelic variations on pulp scifi concepts, and the dramas take place often against black curtains, overlayed with trippy but crude video effects. That would be enough to mark the Unarian videos as worthy of the attention of fringe-interested anthropologists, but the group has one more surprise in their videos:
There’s no acting.
The Unarian videos are ‘psychodramas,’ and the people participating in them believe they’re reliving their past lives in front of the cameras. The dialogue, the actions and most especially the emotions are real - supposedly caused by tapping into the vibrations of negative events in their past lives. Watching the Unarians have their therapy sessions in glittery space dresses is stunning; one sequence has a guy whose face is painted alien purple absolutely breaking down in tears as he confronts some kind of ‘repressed memory’ from a past life. It’s real, it’s raw and it’s honest - and that honesty is all the more notable and touching amidst the weirdness.
Welcome, Space BrothersL The Films Of Unarius! is the weekend long festival featuring Unarian teachings (there are past life therapy sessions happening today) and films, and the Unarians - or what’s left of them, as the group has been slowly fading away over the last few decades - are on hand to talk about their beliefs. They don’t consider themselves a religion but a scientific group seeking to unite spirituality and science, and who are in touch with larger galactic intelligences who are showing them the path to enlightenment.
The most surprising thing about the Unarians is how not kooky they are; they come across like pretty average lower middle class people. Of course once you get them talking about their beliefs you realize there’s some strong kookiness going on (one Unarian, on how she got into the group: “I had come to California to study ESP…”) but they just looked and otherwise behaved like your nice aunt or the waitress at Dennys.
The opening night program was in two parts; first was a ‘mix tape’ of Unarian video, a half hour mash-up of different stuff to give an overview not only of the Unarian belief system but also their specific aesthetic. While the stuff is cheap it is never less than striking and always completely odd. Next was Underground Cities of Mars, a ‘documentary of a true psychic experience,’ in which Uriel travels to Mars, meets Nurel, the leader of the underground cities, and gets a big tour.
Underground Cities of Mars is incredible. It was shot on 8mm, so there was no sound sync, and the dubbing makes everything so dreamlike and odd. On top of that the film is very handmade; Martian cityscapes are created with Hummel knickknacks and little pieces of crystal ephemera and Christmas lights. The homemade Martian costumes are glorious works of kitsch, and most of the tour footage is Uriel and friends wandering through Southern California gardens. The voice over is almost oppressive in its use of repetitive, semi-scientific gobbledy-gook; it’s the words said by people who read the front cover of Popular Science, all stuff about lines of polarization and magnetic fields and hyperkinetics.
The Unarians have lent their costumes and books - filled with wisdom channeled from higher beings - to the Cinefamily for a pop-up museum on the back patio. I can’t recommend visiting this display enough. It’s the cult version of that “Hey kids, let’s put on a show vibe.”
In the end the Unarians may have a wacky belief system (although really no wackier than Christianity or any other mainstream religion), but their videos are an almost primal embodiment of the entire point of cinema. These young believers got together to communally work on art that would depict their emotional traumas, and in doing so help them get past those feelings. This is the reason cinema works, because of the way it allows artists to share with us the rawest and most personal expression of themselves and allows us to work our way through that with them. Listening to these people talk about putting themselves completely onscreen, uncorking their emotions completely, reminded me why I love movies, and why people are continually drawn to the art. There is no greater tool for understanding of ourselves and others, and sometimes it takes an outsider to remind you how powerful this tool is.