When “Unidentified Objects” filmmaker Juan Felipe Zuleta found himself in isolation with the world around him shut down during the height of the pandemic, he and screenwriter Leland Frankel turned to storytelling to transform their “helplessness” to a haven for people, who, like Zuleta, live in liminal spaces.
“Locked in apartments, it was a lot of depression, a lot of anxiety, a lot of… helplessness, and almost a little bit of hatred towards the world for everything that’s going on,” Zuleta told TheWrap. “And eventually, we started developing the story, out of almost necessity, to tell something that expressed… how we were feeling at that moment.”
“Unidentified Objects,” which premieres this week at Outfest Los Angeles, follows Peter, “a flamboyant, misanthropic dwarf hiding from the world,” and his alien-obsessed neighbor, Winona, who forces Peter out of his comfort zone on an impromptu road trip to rural Canada, where she believes she will encounter an alien visitation.
For Zuleta, who is an immigrant from Colombia, both characters — Peter, a homosexual little person, and Winona, a free-spirited women with a wild imagination and history in sex work — live in a liminal space, not belonging here nor there. Similar to Zuleta’s green card, which presents his “alien number,” Peter and Winona are categorized as “aliens” and outsiders as they traverse both the United States-Canada border “through an illegal threshold that is not meant to be crossed” as well as borders of time and space.
By incorporating themes of space and alternative dimensions into the film, Zuleta meditates on where people marginalized by mainstream society belong — if they do at all. “We looked at the pictures of NASA were released this week and the vastness of the universe, it’s like we’re literally not even a piece of dust on floating through space,” Zuleta said. “Then that makes everything so insignificant in many ways… we have to give our meaning to our own world.”
Zuleta links these surreal elements through dream sequences — from a mystical scene in which Peter encounters intergalactic police to a daydream of romance that feels so close to reality Peter almost forgets his societal alienation.
For Zuleta, these dream-like moments are justified from a storytelling perspective after witnessing Peter taking medication and the fact that the duo’s journey centers around a group of aliens that “can manipulate your reality and your perception of your reality,” both elements that suspend viewers’ disbelief.
“How can we transition from a world that feels grounded and a journey into all these dreams and all this the perspective that is going behind the characters’ psyches?” Zuleta asks. “I think a lot of the dreams are just ways in which we can access… the way the character is seeing the world.”
The dreams give insight into Peter’s grief-filled psyche — which Zuleta classifies as “asleep” but wakes up slowly over the course of the film. “He’s almost daydreaming the way we all do that when the way we think about a better future or the way we see the world,” said Zuleta, “through dreams, and to be able to access his his pain… you get to build empathy.”
In a particularly heartfelt scene, Peter goes to a bar and imagines a tender moment of romance with a stranger — before quickly crashing back to reality and experiencing yet another moment of isolation and discrimination. This pivotal scene, in which Peter hits rock bottom, prompts him to decide to pick himself back up or not.
Drawn together solely through their identity as outsiders, Winona’s companionship encourages Peter to face his grief and disdain for the outside world. Despite their differences — Winona, who won’t “stop until she gets what she wants, even if she has to break all the rules,” and Peter, who is college-educated and “way more tactical” — the pair learns from each other before their journey comes to an end.
“It was very important to get characters that weren’t necessarily your obvious choice of likable characters,” Zuleta said. “But… even if you didn’t love them at the beginning, you could understand how they felt, and by the end of the movie, you had a much clearer picture of their perspective in the world.”
“Unidentified Objects” premieres at Outfest Los Angeles with an in-person screening July 20 and is available to stream online July 21-23.