Interview with Renée Scheltema
I’ve recently published my review of a documentary called “Something Unknown is doing we don’t know what”. The film researches the evidence behind the “Big Five” psi phenomena and I liked it greatly. Take a peek at my review for some more info. Today I’m glad to present you my interview with Renée Scheltema, the filmmaker and producer of Something Unknown (link to my review of the movie). Despite this being my 15th interview that I publish here on the site, this is the first one that I did live, using Skype. Please excuse our accents and non-professionalism. Also, I’d like to remind you that Renée and I opened a forum to discuss "Something Unknown" and its topics. Renée is going to be there as well to discuss it with you. In fact, she had already posted a short welcome message there. So come over and join us at forum.mind-energy.net. It’s right near the Skeptiko podcast forum, which you should also participate in, in my opinion. We had a very conversational tone with Renée and the interview starts right in the middle of a sentence.
You can read the redacted transcript below or listen to the audio using the player below or download the MP3 directly.
Renée Sceltema: …I hear what you’re saying because Professor Tart, he told me there’s actually – you could call it the “Big Seven.” But then there are two in the “maybe” category. And one is mediums, you know, talking to dead people which – that’s scientifically you can’t prove that. I investigated it but somehow there’s a reasoning that goes in circles. So I didn’t complete it. And then the other in the “maybe” category is near-death experiences.
Jacob: I actually wanted to ask you about these, as well.
Renée Sceltema: I researched it a little bit and then because Professor Tart said it’s in the “maybe” category I decided not to include these – the film was already very full as it was with information. Couldn’t get that in, as well.
Jacob: I see. Could you tell us a bit more about yourself and why you decided to make this film?
Renée Sceltema: Okay, that’s in the film. I had those psychic experiences and I wanted to know whether I was deluding myself. I sort of knew that parapsychologists were doing research on this kind of stuff, but I hadn’t kept up. I’m not a “woo-woo” kind of person who believes all this stuff. Actually I don’t believe a lot of it.
But on the other hand, the first experience with my father was very strong. I guess in scientific terms you call it “crisis telepathy.” It happened when I was studying at the University of California, Berkeley, during the day. I would call my parents every three months. I had just phoned my parents a few days before. While I was with my nose in the books, there was this strong force that told me that I had to get up and phone them again. I remember walking down the street thinking: ‘This is weird. Why am I walking to the phone booth? There’s no reason for this. It’s the wrong time of the day.’
Then when I phoned, my brother picked up the phone, which is very unusual because he had left home and would never even pick up the phone. Then he told me my father had had a stroke and was fighting for his life at the intensive care. So that seared into my mind because I just picked up something there that was real and I guess it’s part of our survival instinct, no?
In Christianity, all these psychic experiences they call it “from the Devil” and it’s not been too long since they burned witches. And so according to this belief system all these psychic things are all thrown into one corner together with the witches and the weird soothsayers.
Long before that time, when we were living as Bushmen or Aboriginals, there would always be the Shaman who was capable of reaching beyond our minds; capable of doing these kinds of things. For them it was normal. So it’s only been in the past couple of centuries that psychic experiences have been suppressed.
I read a book long ago about Mutant Message Down Under, a beautiful book about an American woman who lives with the Aboriginals. She notes down what they experienced. They could heal; see remote view kangaroos, etc, just because it was just the only way to go.
So I guess it’s part of our survival instinct. So I didn’t regard it as abnormal when I had this experience with my sick father. I just thought, ‘Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.’
Also I guess, I’m at a certain age where I felt confident enough to tackle this kind of subject. I don’t think I would dare to make this film 25 years ago.
Jacob: Okay, it is also written there that you started to work on the film about 10 years ago. Why did it take so long?
Renée Sceltema: Oh, well… I made at least four, maybe five documentaries in between just to survive, for TV. And this one I decided I would try and keep the rights, and it’s a very hard struggle because TV to me is like a big, hungry monster and they eat you and they eat the rights and they want everything. If you don’t give everything: no film. So I’ve been giving in for TV and always gave away the rights in the pas.
With this film, because it was so close to my heart and because it’s so little money, I thought, ‘Let me fight to see if I can keep the rights.’ One of the consequences was, of course, that I had to put in my own money, which I did. I put my savings in. So I started writing about this thing in 2000. And then I started filming a little bit in 2002. I went to Durban here in South Africa, to the fire-walking festival, where they also did piercings. I actually shot and edited a half-hour documentary on this festival, which no one has ever seen. It’s just sitting on my hard drive somewhere.
My plans were still so very vague and general. And as I went along, I found my view. And then “What the Bleep” came out and I was shocked because three of the scientists they interviewed were actually were on my list, and I decided to stay clear of imitating, and narrowed my information down so that at least I would not be making something similar to “What the Bleep” . So it’s been in a process.. Within spiritual ways of thinking and religion you can go in so many directions, and you can get lost so easily. ..
I got lost a couple of times, too, like a spaniel that falls over its own long ears. That’s a bad expression. I can only say it in Dutch. Sorry, trying to be funny in English is difficult. That’s why I needed somebody to help me translate the narration for the film.
Some people asked me to write a book because what happened is I shot at least 100 hours in those past 10 years. Then I decided to start editing, and I spent a whole full year editing it down to six hours. So I actually had this 6 hour-long version of this film, complete with music. Then in 2008, I decided to hire an editor, a very good Australian editor. She sat down with me and the two of us narrowed it down to two hours. Then I ran out of money. Then I edited another two months on my own to finalise the film.
So it’s been a long process. It’s a crazy one-woman’s journey. If you do this with a crew of 10 people, you’d probably be done in one year. But if you do it on your own, it takes at 10 years!
Jacob: What’s there in the other hours of the movie? Of the footage?
In the rest of the footage are more scientists, more anecdotes, more in depth interviews, more evidence and a discussion on the explanation for psychic phenomena
I am busy transcribing this 6-hour version of the film and that could be a good basis for a book. It’s an idea. There are people saying I should write a book. I would need somebody who can help me with my English, especially because I can only tell some funny anecdotes in Dutch. Maybe I should just lock myself up again.
Once I won that award at the Arizona Film Festival, I started on this weird journey. You know you can only hope that your film is successful. But then once it is, it takes you to a whole different area where I had never imagined going.
So I guess if I go with the flow, I should maybe write that book, while everything is still fresh in my mind.
Jacob: I actually have a question I kept for the end of the interview. If you were to make a sequel to the movie, what would be its focus?
Renée Sceltema: Actually, the sequel is already made, because six hours is some sort of sequel. It’s based on the same Big Five. Telepathy, Precognition, Remote Viewing, Healing,etc
Jacob: So what’s in there?
Renée Sceltema: So what is extra? What is extra, for instance, are a few scientists that were cut out altogether. A scientist who tells me how to actually distinguish between a true psychic and a fraud I cut it out because it’s a bit boring. Then it becomes a how-to film and I didn’t want to go there.
There are two remote viewing experts also cut out of the film. Dr Russell Targ, a physicist who was also involved with the Stanford Research Institute and the CIA. At some point in time he says, “I actually don’t want to talk to you. You go sit here and I’m going to ask you to do “remote view something.”
So I kept my camera ready and hoping that I would be somehow in the shot. Because I shot it all on my own…I did the sound, projection, interviews, everything, so I just hoped that would come out alright…Camera rolling on its own with Russell and me in front of it. Sort of surprising. Then he asked me to remote view something he had secretly hidden for me.
Another thing I cut out is the discussion about the explanation for psychic phenomena. In some previews I noted that people mixed up explanations with evidence. If you go into the different explanations too deeply, and listen to the pros and cons, viewers tend to forget that the film was about the scientific evidence in the first place.
One scientist actually didn’t even want to talk to me because he had a different explanation than he thought I would have for these phenomena. So you can imagine the heated discussion, taking you away from the subject matter.
So that’s why I kept each and every scientist short. They could all give their sort of explanation and I try and make it understandable. So one scientist talks about the zero point of view; Rupert Sheldrake talks about the morphic field: schools of fish or flocks of birds can all change direction instantly as if there’s no time difference. I can understand each and every of those explanations. But I don’t want to preach.
I do not like documentaries that tell you what to think. So I prefer that people get their opinions across and then the viewer can make up its mind as to what they think is causing these phenomena. I don’t want to really tell them what I think is causing it.
At the very end of the film I just ask that question. Did I just find scientific evidence for spirit? That’s my end. That’s my last narration. And then Professor Tart answers and comes back to the evidence.
Jacob: You’re already attached to this but beyond the Big Five phenomena that you refer to, do you express interest yourself with the survival of consciousness research, NDE, or OB, or mediumship?
I know you like to make a link to mediumship and near-death experience☺ I think with near-death experience they’re doing some research that I find pretty interesting and I actually wanted to delve into it. But I was forbidden to do it by a professor who said he was sort of “bought” out by Channel 4.
I thought this was ridiculous. I mean, how far is commercial TV intertwined with “objective” scientists? I thought it was ridiculous. I stopped there, right there, because I was onto some evidence and I could have touched on it, but was stopped.
I’m sure there’s plenty of films made on this subject already. And I didn’t have an NDE myself so there was not really a reason for me to get into it. Talking with dead people… I don’t have experience with that, either. I think scientifically it’s impossible to prove. So I didn’t want to go there either.
At the other hand, I don’t want to take other people’s beliefs away because it helps them. They have loved ones that they’ve lost and if they think they can communicate with them, that’s great. Maybe they can. I don’t know.
Jacob: Another topic that’s something that permeates the whole film is spoon-bending. It’s a really interesting topic because it’s on the front lines of the debate between the proponents and the skeptics. I guess it’s very familiar to many people mostly because Uri Geller made it familiar 30 years ago. It’s also possible to be done without any telekinesis or psychokinesis.
How did the magician at your house bend your spoon? Is it sleight-of-hand, because he’s a magician, a performing magician?
Renée Sceltema: I’m not 100 percent sure. It could be a whole separate film, just the spoon-bending. It could be a fun film too. I could go to magicians and magic schools and see how you can do it as a magic trick, but then also go to a person like Uri Geller or Larry. I just happened to bump into him this weekend at some sort of organic fair and he was doing stuff. He can move the hands of a watch. That’s just – that’s weird, isn’t it?
Jacob: How does Larry present himself?
Renée Sceltema: He presents himself as a mix between real stuff and real telekinesis and tricks. But he wouldn’t tell. He probably wants everyone to believe it’s all real. I think it’s a mix, I didn’t want to investigate it because it would take me away from the film that I wanted to make.
It became sort of a running gag because he bent my spoon and I put it in my camera bag and then showed it to these scientists, thinking they would start laughing and send me out the door. But the opposite happened. They all took it seriously and said, “Yes, something serious is going on.” And they came back with their own anecdotes and experiences. So I thought that was fascinating.
Jacob: A nice touch to the movie.
Renée Sceltema: Yeah, and not go into the detail whether it’s true or not true.
Jacob: What was your experience like? You worked with Jack Houck at a PK party.
Renée Sceltema: I’m on my own and if somebody buckles the ball, he does it in a matter of seconds. Three people did it out of the 45 attending. To be able to film that, was lucky! What is the chance that I am standing in front of a person who does it right there and then? I had to make circles with my camera via all these 45 people and I missed the other two.. So to capture it on film was actually miraculous in itself. I never had the opportunity to try it myself. I tried to make it on my own but I make very crooked bent spoons. There was no way I could do it.
Jacob: You didn’t do it?
Renée Sceltema: No, because I didn’t participate. I filmed. It’s a very different mindset.
Jacob: So your final conclusion after this party, is this for real?
Renée Sceltema: As I said, I could make a documentary about it. It would be interesting to go behind the scenes and see what’s real and what’s no real. But I know that Uri Geller, a lot of people say, “Eww, Uri Geller, he’s out of fashion,” but he’s made a comeback, first of all. And secondly, many of these scientists have investigated or worked with Uri Geller and what he’s done is for real. So I believe he has paranormal capacities.
Jacob: I’ve been following spoon-bending for quite some time now. On my website, people were sending me lots of photographs of bent spoons and they talked to people who met with Uri Geller and gave him his real spoon and it looked very real, what he was doing. Live on a stage, in a small place, not a large performance. It’s very much a specific phenomena. Of course, like James Randi who wrote a whole book about Uri Geller many years ago.
It always comes back to people who mail photographs and people who have been to the parties, and Dean Radin and other people. I think Michael Crichton also worked about this. It’s those kinds of things. I wanted to hear another opinion from somebody who actually went…
Renée Sceltema: I totally don’t think it’s only fraud. I started like that in the film to get skeptics onboard, too, because of the Crichton stuff and that’s how you start. But on my journey, the scientists took Uri Geller seriously and have witnessed him doing stuff that they cannot explain. So maybe our mind has a special capacity to bend metal. I don’t know. I haven’t investigated. That’s why I kept it as a running gag. I kept it mysterious. That’s another film.
Jacob: Perhaps. It certainly will have a lot of rating.
Renée Sceltema: I already have a lot of footage. And Jack Houck’s getting old and I’m not even sure if he’s still teaches it. He’s the one who started all this. Maybe I should. It’s not an easy subject because the magicians won’t tell their tricks. And Uri does not want to speak about spoons.
Jacob: There are actually no skeptics in the film. Have you researched the opposite side of the argument?
Renée Sceltema: Yes, yes. There are two reasons. One is that I wanted to make a film about evidence and not give time to skeptics because of course you get a “balanced” view, but what they are saying is, “It’s not true, it’s not true.” Usually skeptics don’t investigate it. Usually they say it’s not true because they would have to change their minds and they don’t want to go there. I wanted to make a personal film and I wanted to know what evidence had been found and not include other people who say there is no evidence. That’s not the kind of film I intended to make.
It’s so easy to just dismiss it all. If you investigated, you would have to change your mind and you may have to change your worldview, too, that’s scary. \
Jacob: I know what you’re talking about.
Renée Sceltema: I think it’s balanced in the evidence that I present. That’s what I wanted to do.
Jacob: Did you actually talk to them?
Renée Sceltema: Yeah, yeah, I talked to a few. I just got very annoyed because they just say it’s not true. They come up with all these arguments. I know this one skeptic who was very skeptical about remote viewing and then Stephen Schwartz noticed him. He actually started to do research and then he turned his opinion around and became a believer. That’s what I call a true skeptic. You make an effort to really investigate what you don’t believe.
Again: that’s a different film. I wanted to really see what evidence had been found. It’s so easy to dismiss everything.
Jacob: Now another point in the film, most of the film is you talking with scientists and researchers, which is great. We’re left with some footage about healers and Nancy Meyer. I don’t know. Her appearance to me, it looks like it doesn’t fit the film because she is a psychic detective and she’s also somewhat – she looks sort of strange in the movie. She’s like detached or something. And what she says about something about “it will get me killed”. It doesn’t make you really believe her.
Renée Sceltema: Well, she’s big. She’s big on TV. She’s on Japanese TV. She’s on Court TV. She’s big in the world.
Jacob: Yeah, but the focus of the film looks to be scientific evidence and so…
Renée Sceltema: No, no. The focus of the film is scientific evidence but I sprinkled anecdotes all over the film. She’s just one of those anecdotes. She’s not a scientist, she just tells an anecdote. I’ve met quite a few psychics who have been called in to help the police because they can give clues that are helpful to the police.
Jacob: It looks like a level of belief into the psi phenomenon in private is much higher than the official standpoint of many people. It’s like I believe Dossey said in the movie about the medical profession, than an anonymous questioners, many of them wrote that they had experiences themselves, or belief in psychic healing or had some experiences with this. But officially they would deny it.
For example, if you take the psychic detectives, I haven’t seen many TV programs about psychic detectives. But when it’s on TV l become skeptical because you never know what’s true.
Renée Sceltema: Most TV programs are about mediums talking to the public and seeing them, “Do I see you father, and did he used to wear a…
Jacob: Exactly. So I don’t have much belief in what happens.
Renée Sceltema: No, me neither. I totally agree. That’s mass entertainment. I just happened to meet a lot of psychics who were all doing detective work. Another thing is that I actually went to the police station and spoke to the chief officer there at the police station. He told me about how he would contact Nancy if they could not solve a case and that she was right most of the time. But I cut it out. That’s also in the long 6 hour-version.
Jacob: Okay, because it looks like the police never will admit to the public…
Renée Sceltema: No, no, I have it on film. I spoke to this police officer. He tells how he gets advice from her. I have that on film. Maybe I should just make a clip online or something. It’s interesting that you say that.
Jacob: In the Skeptiko forum, Alex interviewed a psychic detective, as well. I don’t remember who it was, actually. It was some interesting case. There was much debate because the interview deals with a policeman that worked on the case. But the case was 20 years ago. It was still debatable. It will be good to have some good research into the psychic detective field.
Renée Sceltema: Yes, yes. I just cut it I interviewed the chief police officer in her area in Pittsburgh. I interviewed him and he tells me that she helps the police once and a while!
Jacob: I liked in your film that you actually went to the locations where the scientists work and it’s not like an artificial setting like it was in the “Bleep”. Because I really wanted to see how Dean Radin works, for example, and how the presentiment experiments are done. In your film he uses eye tracking and most of his papers are using skin resistance so it was the first time I’ve seen eye tracking.
Renée Sceltema: Yes, he told me I was the first to film that. That was lucky.
Jacob: It was recent footage?
Renée Sceltema: Yes, yes. I was the first to film it. He told me that I had a premiere of his research. That was lucky. It was nice.
Jacob: After all these years and all the research, it looks a lot like you present the movie like it’s an exploration and journey for you personally.
Renée Sceltema: Yeah, it was.
Jacob: I wonder, what are your conclusions, insights, after all these years and all the research?
Renée Sceltema: But you see, that’s how film works. It was a journey because I didn’t know what sort of evidence I would find on one hand. But on the other hand, I knew there was evidence, so on the one hand, it was a journey, exploring what I would find on the journey. But on the other hand, of course, I wasn’t totally ignorant. Then I would not have been able to make this film.
Jacob: Yes, but you said that you were skeptical in general. You won’t believe anything because it’s on TV.
Renée Sceltema: No. This is not a story about some Guru, who walks down the mountain and tells the world, “Hey, there’s scientific evidence and here I’ve found all of this.” These people are all experts; doctors, professors; from the University of Arizona, University of Princeton, UC Davis, etc Most of these scientists are skeptics themselves. Otherwise they wouldn’t research it. These are people, who are accredited people and some of them, like Edgar Mitchell, he’s not just your average…. He was a physicist who went to the moon. You need to have a certain amount of brains in order to accomplish that. These are really top scientists. If you don’t believe them, then there’s nothing left.
Jacob: So personally you’ve become very convinced of the evidence?
Renée Sceltema: Yes, yes. But again, spoon bending, I don’t know.
Jacob: No, not spoon bending.
Renée Sceltema: I’m totally convinced because I had an experience with my father. I was walking to a telephone booth and it was a journey of like, half an hour during the daylight hours. I was 21, walking to a telephone booth because I had to phone my parents. And I remember it so vividly because it was so strange. Because it was such a strong force. So we definitely have a sixth sense. There’s no doubt about it.
No, I don’t think there’s a doubt about it. I’m talking about the Big Five. I’m not talking about the other maybe categories.
Jacob: That’s okay. For specifically the Big Five, for telepathy, precognition, etc.
Renée Sceltema: I think I’m convinced. There is no doubt in my mind but this stuff happens, yes. Which is nice, because it makes it even more mysterious if you don’t know what’s doing it: “Something is doing we don’t know what. “
Jacob: I wonder how difficult was it to get all these scientists on the film?
Renée Sceltema: Very. Very.
Jacob: Very difficult?
Renée Sceltema: Yes. It took at least a year if not longer. Because they are approached by skeptics and they creep in like a wolf in sheep’s clothing and then all of a sudden they turn around and they start attacking the scientist. That’s not really what they need. They want to be able to be challenged, but not – but they’re skeptics themselves.
But it was very hard because they are high, top scientists. You don’t get in just like that. I had to gain their confidence. One crazy woman from South Africa. So it took at least a year. And that was part of the journey. I set off with almost 80 kilos of equipment but I wasn’t too sure whom I could approach. Some of them decided at the last minute: “Okay, you can come see me.” And then I flew to the East rather than to the West of the US.”
So it wasn’t all prepared. As I was going around, I think they started to get a sense of what I was doing and then they all probably gossiped about me and said I was okay. And as I went along it became a bit easier because after a certain amount of interviews I had gotten a (good) reputation.
Jacob: I guess it is always hardest to get the first one because then you can reference the first one to the second and so on.
Renée Sceltema: And they talked to each other and they emailed. So definitely they were talking about me before they gave me access to their research.
Jacob: I wonder, what was the feedback to the film?
Renée Sceltema: It’s so fantastic. The frustrating part is that I’m still on my own because I have no budget. I have no marketing budget. First I didn’t have a budget to make the film because it’s a controversial subject. I tried from 2000, to get a producer onboard. And I actually had one or two producers onboard for a little while, but then they backed out because they thought, “Ohh, we don’t fully know it; she might be too “woo-woo””.
There are a lot of ‘woo-woo’ films being made that make your toes curl.
Especially if you touch this kind of subject. It’s very easy to go wrong.
I used my life savings to really make this film. You can only dream that you get a special jury award. It shook me. I was actually not sure what to do for about two weeks. Usually my films were aired and that’s it. Onto the next film. But when I won that award, I thought, “Oh, shit. This is a dream come true, but what does it mean?”
It means that people like the film. Oh, oh… that means I can maybe sell it. Whoops. But I have no budget to sell it. I don’t know anything about PR or marketing or distribution for that matter, nothing. So I took some workshops, and am still busy educating myself; reading books. Jesus, it’s a whole different world. And it’s not my kind of world at all. I’m a filmmaker. I prefer to do gardening rather than film-distribution, but there is a need to recoup my investment before I can move on to another project.
Jacob: Good luck with the promotion.
Renée Sceltema: Thanks, Jacob.