A lovely short documentary about a lifetime spent looking for meaningful contact.

John Shepherd, the subject of director Matthew Killip’s documentary John Was Trying to Contact Aliens (available on Netflix), has a story that is distinctly his own, while also being as universal as it gets. John spent decades broadcasting music into space in the hope of reaching other life forms. The doc runs a breezy 16 minutes, but you only need a minute or two to understand what John’s story is really about. John’s life has been marked by absence and loneliness. Abandoned by his parents as an infant and adopted by his grandparents, John has always felt like he didn’t quite belong. So he turned his gaze to the stars and found solace in the vastness and infinite possibilities of the final frontier.

With the help of his grandfather, John set up his equipment and began broadcasting all kinds of music, from electronic to jazz to African to Tangerine Dream. Why music? Because, as John puts it, music is a universal language. With such a short runtime, Killip has precious little time to paint a full picture of Shepherd without making him seem like an oddity. In a few key images, Killip gives us the arc of a life, one marked by loss and searching. We track the evolution of John and his electronic setup from their quaint beginning to something that becomes all consuming, all in the space of a few pictures.

Eventually John runs out of money and is unable to keep up his intergalactic search. Unable to find what he was looking for in space, he is able to make an important connection in real life. As a teenager John realized he is gay, but couldn’t act on it in a meaningful way. While John didn’t find what he was looking for with his broadcasting, losing that outlet brought him to the most important crossroads of his life. He could’ve fallen into depression and accepted a life of loneliness. But, with the same optimism that made him think he could reach aliens, John decides to move on with his life and put himself out there in a way he had been avoiding. It’s a deeply rewarding moment, and Killip plays it just right. John Was Trying to Contact Aliens is a lovely “story behind the story” kind of documentary. A 16 minute film that will put a smile on your face and make you hopeful for humanity, in this economy? That’s something you shouldn’t pass up.

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