The Mothman is a part of modern folklore and a central figure in the realm of high strangeness, an unsettling intersection of UFO lore, mysticism, religion, cryptozoology and magic. In the most straightforward telling, the Mothman was a creature that appeared in Point Pleasant, West Virginia in the 1960s, whose presence coincided with a bridge collapse that killed 46 people, leaving locals wondering about its role in the disaster. If you want to follow that rabbit hole, things get much stranger from there.

What that has to do with Narcotics Anonymous isn’t immediately obvious. Melissa Ferrari’s experimental documentary Phototaxis stitches both together, blending excerpts of the Narcotics Anonymous “Big Book” with various news clippings and other accounts of the Mothman incident, and reading them over mixed-media renderings of rural West Virginia and ghostly pastel palimpsest animation. Once the phrases from the two intersect over Ferrari’s unearthly imagery, the combination starts making a lot more sense.

Phototaxis is a film about belief, and how what we believe shapes how we see the world. “Seeing is believing” is a reassuring phrase, but as often than not, the reverse is just as true. The Narcotics Anonymous excerpts and the Mothman clippings both emphasize the way believing in something makes you more open to finding ways to reinforce that belief—we interpret ambiguous sights based on what we expect to see, and that interpretation just confirms the original assumption, whether it’s faith in a higher power, or believing that a winged hominid is warning you about a future calamity.

That message is at its clearest about four minutes into the film, as the townspeople stare into the sky and observe the creature. Its form shifts from angel to alien, to the specter of death, to a crane and a red balloon. The skeptic, the occultist, the Christian and the alien enthusiast all see what they’ve been primed to see, reducing ambiguity to something tidier—a point rendered beautifully by Ferrari’s pastels.

Maybe my favourite thing about Phototaxis is how easy it is to interpret it as a critique of Narcotics Anonymous, an endorsement of high strangeness, or something else altogether. The pairing makes for a fascinating juxtaposition, one that’s just as open to interpretation as the events it portrays—and that ambiguity is another reflection of the film’s themes.

Phototaxis (2017)

dir: Melissa Ferrari

syn: “Unforeseeable disasters can raise questions of theodicy. A
vacuum of meaning is created that invites religious interpretation.”
– Joseph Laycock, Mothman: Monster, Disaster and Community

“The nature of our belief will determine the manifestation of our
– Narcotics Anonymous

“Phototaxis” draws parallels between Mothman, a prophetic and demonized creature in West Virginia lore, and Narcotics Anonymous, the primary treatment program in West Virginia’s addiction epidemic. Rooted in nonfiction, this film contemplates synchronicity and the role of belief systems in perception and pseudoscience; the tendency to assign supernatural meaning to tragedy and the unknowable; anonymous and apocryphal oral histories; and the moth to the flame. To visualize these narratives, natural materials and pastel-on-paper palimpsest animation are woven together using a multiplane and analog overhead projection.

First year film at CalArts Experimental Animation MFA

phototaxis, n.
pho·to·tax·is \ˌfō-tō-ˈtak-səs\
the movement of an organism in response to light, either toward the stimulus of light (positive phototaxis) or away from it (negative phototaxis).

Also from Melissa Ferrari:
Crow is an earlier, silent exploration of the artistic technique used in Phototaxis, captured under natural light:

Cryptomythology explores the intersection of science and mythology through a mix of stop-motion and pastel drawing, captured on black-and-white 16mm film.

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