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Sonoma UFO forum is out of this world


“Unidentified Flying Objects are the biggest, most important topic on the planet Earth,” declares Jim Ledwith, Sonoma-based “UFOlogist” and curator-founder of the annual UFO Symposium. A popular film-and-conversation event, the Symposium will celebrate its sixth anniversary on April 1 and 2 as part of the upcoming Sonoma International Film Festival, running March 30 to April 3.

For his first three years at the festival, Ledwith’s blend of UFO-themed movies and panel discussions was offered as part of a fringe movie series called “The Side Bar.”

“But when I pointed out that that title sort of marginalized the subject of UFOs,” says Ledwith, “the festival agreed to call it ‘The UFO Symposium.’ We’re now the only annual UFO-themed movie symposium to take place at a mainstream film festival in America.”

Over the years, Ledwith – known to many by the nickname “UFO Jim” —has built a solid following for the symposium, through positive word-of-mouth and through his own website, UFOsrreal.com. The symposium has “beamed in” UFO aficionados from all over the country, drawn to Ledwith’s curious combination of films and special guests. This year, the UFO Symposium will feature one of its most famous guests ever.

Travis Walton, of Arizona, is best known as the subject of the 1993 film “Fire in the Sky,” a Hollywood spin on Walton’s memoir, detailing his tale of one of the most famous “alien abduction” stories in modern history. The still-debated event took place in Arizona’s remote Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, where Walton was working with a lumber crew the night of Nov. 5, 1975.

“He was abducted by beings from space,” says Ledwith. “For five days, the authorities thought he’d been murdered by his co-workers, and then he was returned. All of the co-workers who were there, who saw the spacecraft, they all took polygraph tests, and they all passed, except for one, and that one was inconclusive.”

Along with a Friday night screening of “Fire in the Sky,” starring D.B. Sweeny as Walton, and James Garner as an Arizona investigator, Ledwith will also be presenting a new documentary by Jennifer Stein, of Philadelphia. The doc, titled “Travis: The True Story of Travis Walton,” will screen Saturday morning, April 2, and will be followed by a panel discussion featuring Walton and Stein, plus others.

“I saw ‘Fire in the Sky’ when it originally came out and I thought, ‘Wow! What an amazing story,’” says Stein, who’s been involved in UFO conferences for several years. She has often described her own recollections of seeing something she believes to be an alien spacecraft.

“It was 1975,” she says, “the same year Travis was abducted. I was 19, and I was afraid to say anything about it for years. Eventually, I decided I could no longer stay in the dark, and so I decided to speak out, and try to find a way to make a difference.”

In 2000, Stein became involved with MUFON (the Mutual UFO Network), through which she eventually met Travis Walton, in 2010, at a UFO conference in Roswell, New Mexico. It was there that Stein first discussed with Walton the possibility of sponsoring his own UFO event in Arizona, including a visit to the location where Walton and the other members of the lumber crew claim their close encounter took place.

Recalls Stein, “I said to Travis – it’s time to draw a line in the sand. ‘Fire in the Sky’ distorted your story, and this conference would be a way to set the record straight.” With the idea of holding the event during the 40th anniversary of Walton’s disappearance, it was decided that, since it is often cold and snowing in the White Mountains of Arizona in November, a documentary film could be shot to give attendees the experience of visiting the alleged landing site, should weather prevent them from getting there. Once Stein began shooting interviews with those who still recalled the incident – including Walton, many of his logging team members, local law enforcement, and even the technician who administered the polygraph test – the fledgling filmmaker soon saw that she had enough material for a feature length documentary film.

“The more I got into the story, the more I found,” she says. “It was 40 years ago, sure, but people in the town do still remember this. I thought if I could tell the true story with the people involved, it would be a great thing for history.”

“Travis: The True Story of Travis Walton” was screened last November at Walton’s Skyfire Summit conference, just in time to mark the 40th anniversary of the “Fire in the Sky” incident. Since then, the documentary has collected 10 awards from various film festivals around the country

Interest in UFOs, says Stein, is enormous.

“It’s the next big issue for humanity,” she says. Acknowledging that there are plenty of people who remain unconvinced of the existence of aliens or UFOs, Stein invites them to come see her film in Sonoma and stay after to give feedback.

Says Stein, “There is no issue more important to the future of the world and to our species.”

Make ‘contact’ with David at david.templeton@sonomanews.com.