On Nov. 5, 1975, Travis Walton’s life changed.
He was with a crew of seven loggers in Heber, Ariz., when they noticed a bright light. In the middle of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, they thought maybe it was a fire or a plane crash.
Instead, they said, they saw a large saucer, hovering off the ground emitting a bright light. As the story goes, Walton jumped out of his passenger seat and went toward the light and was catapulted. He was missing for five days before reappearing and saying he had been taken into a space craft by alien creatures.
The crew members were suspected — and later absolved — of murder, and they even volunteered themselves for polygraph tests to prove their story.
Walton’s story was told in the fictionalized film, Fire in the Sky, which was based on a manuscript for a book Walton wrote, but Radnor filmmaker Jennifer Stein believed there were pieces of the story missing in the film. So, she made her own.
She screened her 2015 critically-acclaimed documentary, created with co-producer Bob Terrio, Travis: The True Story of Travis Walton, at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy on Oct. 29, joined by Walton himself.
“The true story had never really been told,” she said, “and when you confabulate the facts, especially about something that’s so profound as this topic, it messes with people’s reality because most people take their reality from TV.”
The two had met in 2010 when Stein, who belongs to Adath Israel, was running a conference in Roswell, N.M. — perhaps the first place that comes to mind when thinking about UFOs. It was nearing the 40th anniversary of Walton’s incident and she wanted to help him plan a conference in its honor, where people could come to the town and learn more.
Stein is well-versed in the extraterrestrial world. She started the Main Line Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) in the early 2000s and holds monthly meetings at a local library.
She said she had a UFO sighting of her own when she was 19 at her home near Lansdale, recalling a craft that was 70 feet long and maybe 5- or 6-feet high, hovering over a tree at around 5:30 a.m.
“I didn’t know what to do with this sighting,” she said. “It was shocking and strange, and I just put it in what I call my gray box psychologically. I wrote it down as if it was a dream.”
Years later, she learned a friend who was staying with her at the time but was sleeping in a different room had seen the same thing. They just never talked about it.
After that, she decided to step into that world, which she noted was a conscious decision because it’s not an easy topic to discuss publicly.
“This field is filled with ridicule, it’s filled with innuendo, it’s filled with name-calling, it’s filled with backstabbing, and it’s very deliberate,” she said. “Nobody wants to touch the UFO topic because of fear of ridicule.”
For Stein, documentaries can help people break down preconceived notions.
A self-taught filmmaker, she made a documentary about a friend who survived a bus bombing in Tel Aviv in 1989, though she later died. The subsequent documentary raised money for a legal aid bureau in Carmiel, Israel.
“Documentaries have a way of providing insights into a story that you just can’t get by reading an article,” said Stein, who is a fan of music documentaries and filmmakers like Ken Burns. “It’s up close and personal and it touches you, and I’m a documentary filmmaker that likes to tell personal stories.”
For Travis, she interviewed UFO experts she met at the MUFON National Symposium in Philadelphia in 2014. She dug up archives of media footage and letters proving officials tried to debunk Walton’s story, even offering one of the crew members money to come out and say their story was made up.
“These boys never changed their story in 40 years,” she said. “When most people have a UFO sighting, it’s usually just one person or maybe two — rarely seven. And rarely seven people who all know each other and work together and all have a sighting 100 feet away.”
By telling Walton’s story and holding events with organizations like MUFON, she hopes that people may eventually feel more confident talking publicly about the subject.
As reported in February 2017 by the Daily Mail based on data from the National UFO Reporting Centre, 104,947 UFO sightings have been reported since the first sign of aliens was spotted in 1905.
“Travis has had to make the best of what has become of his life, and his life was destroyed because of this,” she said. “So if he can help other people, he’s trying. And by me making this film about his event, I’m also trying. … To an extent, I’m providing a service by having done this film.”