Two Sleepy People

18 mins read

“One in three people who read this article has a sleeping problem.”

Filmmaker Alan Berliner’s stark observation may sound startling, but he discovered, while making his newest autobiographical work, that sleeplessness and insomnia are prevalent in today’s society. They’re the subject of two new fiction features, Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep and Sean Garrity’s Lucid, as well as several documentaries, including Berliner’s Wide Awake, which is showing at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, and Canadian filmmaker Annette Mangaard’s Into the Night.

Subject matter aside, the two documentaries couldn’t be more different stylistically and personally. New York native Berliner continues in the vein of his quirky, probing personal movies, such as Intimate Stranger (1991) and Nobody’s Business (1996), this time shining his spotlight, in a very mocking fashion, more on himself than on his family, though they play supporting parts in the documentary. Mangaard’s film is more conventional. It’s a poetic, affecting look at insomnia, beginning with her own sleeplessness but spreading out to encapsulate varied voices, whose disembodied observations on their sleep issues are heard over shots of quiet, deserted city streets at night, beautifully shot by ace cinematographer/director Peter Mettler .

The genesis of the two films was also quite different. Berliner’s look at sleeplessness is a natural outgrowth of his personal take on the subjects he’s concerned with, but Mangaard was actually encouraged to make her movie by Silva Basmajian, her producer at the National Film Board of Canada. “(She) thought it would be an interesting idea for a film. I’d told her about the problem and how it seemed to be more and more prevalent. She’s a sleeper—God how I envy them!—and for her it seemed impossible that I could have so much energy on so little sleep.”

While Mangaard doesn’t delve into the genesis of her problematic sleep patterns too much— attributing her insomnia, perhaps, to her father’s moving the family around so much when she was a child—she certainly found more than a few people, besides the friends and acquaintances she featured in he film, who were knowledgeable about and sympathetic to the issue.

“Everywhere I went, and this continues, people tell me about how difficult it is for them to sleep. This is not only a function of age, stress and a busy lifestyle. Children experience it as well. We must be taught to sleep,” says Mangaard. “If we are not taught that at an early age, then insomnia becomes a very difficult habit to break. I also discovered that people in countries and cultures that I thought of as being ‘peaceful,’ like Bali, also suffered from insomnia. For some people perhaps it’s just that, like myself, their circadian rhythm is different from 9-to-5 society.” Berliner sees insomnia as possibly resulting from the “24/7 perpetual oversaturation of media.”

Mangaard brings an almost anthropological approach to her examination of insomnia, never more so than in her visit to a sleep clinic where she agrees to be wired to electrodes and monitored while she’s asleep. She’s absolutely fascinated with the process of how the test works, and the scientific impetus behind it. Berliner, by contrast, uses his identical sleep test as a mere fact, a jumping-off point to the provocative comments of the doctors themselves, who admit that they don’t really know much about why we need to sleep, much less why we yawn or snore. (Sleep problems are also attributed to the cause of more deaths, through accidents, than alcohol and drug abuse combined, says Berliner.) The movie’s most disquieting observation: the metaphor of sleep deprivation is exemplified by a frog, which can be boiled slowly to death since it will not notice that anything is wrong if the water is heated gradually.

Needless to say, that highly dramatic comparison elicits strong reactions from Berliner’s wife, sister and mother as they sit around the kitchen table discussing Alan’s insomnia. Its possible genesis when, as a child, he’d hear his parents—who later divorced—fighting at night, becomes a topic for familial debate, as well as Berliner’s admitted neuroses. If nothing else, Berliner is scrupulous about noting his shortcomings, flaws and eccentricities. It’s what makes up the guts of a good documentary, he feels. “I have access to my own willingness to put myself out there and on the line (using) unlimited time, energy, perseverance, to mine a subject, whether names [The Sweetest Sound] or sleep patterns, and take it all the way through the lens and prism of honesty.” Berliner prefers to term his works experimental or essay films, but if they’re labeled as documentaries, “that’s okay,” he says.

His films’ experimental nature has been evident from the beginning of the 49 year-old Berliner’s twenty year-plus career. The Family Album (1986) utilized home movies from more than 75 different anonymous families to make points about the commonalities of family life in America from the 1920s through the 1950s. “[I became] an expert on family [even though] none of the images were of my own family,” says Berliner wryly, adding that they did get into the film via some audio clips. Nevertheless, The Family Album led to his next film, Nobody’s Business, a fascinating look at his maternal grandfather Joseph Cassuto a Palestinian born Jew raised in Egypt, who immigrated to America to make a new life for himself. When Cassuto died tragically after being hit by a car, it was discovered that he had a dual life in Japan— perfect fodder for a film examining identity, reality and perception. It helped that there were some fifteen boxes of archival information covering his grandfather’s entire life. “[It] allowed me to explore family in a distinct way [with] its understated delicacies and nuances,” he says.

Nagged somewhat by the fact that the subject of his film “couldn’t defend or speak for himself,” and [recognizing] that those who did comment on him in Intimate Stranger filtered their views through “motivational memories” or highly subjective viewpoints, Berliner then turned his attention to the paternal side of his family. His late father Oscar, the subject of Nobody’s Business, constantly challenges his son’s making a movie about him. “The person who denigrated my grandfather as nothing and a nobody was my father. I confronted my father [and said] ‘then what are you’?” His father’s answer that he, too, was nothing and a nobody was all Berliner needed to hear; it was a challenge for him to make a sad and amusing movie based, partially, on Oscar’s recalcitrance in even being considered a suitable film subject. Balancing the maternal and paternal sides of his family was also a “closing of the circle,” adds Berliner.

After that came The Sweetest Sound, where, for the first time, Berliner came close to examining his own role in family life, through the inspired idea of inviting all the other Alan Berliners he could find (including Ma Vie en Rose feature filmmaker Alain Berliner) to his apartment to chat about their similarities and differences. The Sweetest Sound “was a new approach to family,” he maintains, “a new way to approach genealogy, etymology of names…[With it,] I was heading towards me. It looks like I did it in two steps in a way, with two films.” His other films, he perceives, as being filtered thorough a “fractured mirror, looking at [things from the] outside in. [With Wide Awake ,] the new film, I work from the inside out.”

Berliner’s familiar but never tiresome tropes— his perfect use of the appropriate film clip to illustrate his subject matter, the skilled, repetitive and effective cinematic emphasis of scenes and sounds, the strong personal centre to his movies— are all on view here once again. So is an unvarnished look at his family. While his son Eli, who sleeps remarkably well for a baby, is left undisturbed, wife Shari’s pristine slumber is actually disrupted on screen during one of Berliner’s frequent sleepless nights. “She still likes me,” he says, somewhat defensively, about that act, “and she’s in a movie now.” He also sees his movie as benefiting the viewers who, like him, can’t sleep.

“It’s intended to be funny, but it’s a therapeutic vehicle as well. At the same time, I took it seriously [and] there are things in [the film] people can learn. In and out of all my other agendas [is] to make information available to the viewer. There were a long list of things I tried [to help me] sleep and failed; some of those may work for someone else.”

Unlike Berliner, in her more than twenty years as a filmmaker, Mangaard has mixed fiction—the 1994 Canadian Film Centre short 94 Arcana Drive, and the 1996 feature film romantic comedy Fish Tale Soup — in with such non-fiction projects as 1990’s A Dialogue with Vision: The Art of Spring Hurlbut and Judith Schwartz. “I think that as a filmmaker, all of my films are mine and that the genre isn’t as important as the stylistic considerations,” says Mangaard about her oeuvre. “Hopefully a film has a signature on it that identifies the maker in the same manner that a painting is recognizable as being by a certain artist. I make films that I want to make. My background [is] as an artist, a painter, and printmaker, and filmmaking lately has become much more of a business for me. But inside it’s still the act of making something, of creating a thing with your brain and hands and eyes, that excites me.”

That attitude extends to how the two directors illuminate the night, and the sleeplessness that accompanies it. Says Mangaard, “The night is a special time with a sound all its own. Darkness cloaks sound and we often don’t see who or what or where a sound has emerged from. Having the voices float through the film meant more of the lonely and alone experience of the night that I find so interesting—sometimes frightening and sometimes wonderfully stimulating. For me, the night does have many sides to it, and creatively it might be that I was letting those voices speak to the people out there who were sleeping—like some kind of insidious dream that could creep into their minds.”

Berliner’s evocation of the night and the dream state is much less cinematically literal, bolstered by the generous use of the reels of film, on every subject under the sun, which he keeps in his voluminous files. “When I began the film, I looked up everything to do with sleeping etc. I was charged, excited and challenged by the possibility of making metaphor.” Thus, in Wide Awake, “a skydiver [or] submarine would be a metaphor for escaping [into sleep] or a dream,” points out Berliner. “A long corridor, that’s kind of the model for falling asleep, consciousness receding into the distance. I matched that [image] with relaxation tapes, a garden [but] that no one gets into it, [with] no trespassing signs [standing in for not being able to get to sleep]. One thing leads to another.” Provocatively, Berliner even suggests, “I might have ended up a filmmaker [because] I just had to hold down a job,” something that would have been harder as a sleep-deprived daytime worker.

Have the filmmakers begun to sleep better now that their projects have been released into the wider world? Says Mangaard, “When it was completed I did sleep for several months. Then my father became quite ill and insomnia took over again. Now I’ve come to terms with a few things and find that I’ve gone into a vivid dream phase— where I remember my dreams with great clarity…I’m really enjoying this. The other thing that’s happened is that I’ve realized that I can sleep much better if I don’t have anything scheduled to do before noon. This doesn’t mean not working before noon, just doing it at my own pace. I also realize that I work much, much better at night.”

Berliner, too, does work better after dark, which is when he’s put all his films together—his daytime state often sees him often feeling like a ‘zombie,’ he says in Wide Awake —but he’s not as optimistic as Mangaard as to his future sleeping patterns improving. In fact, Shari pretty much gives him an ultimatum at the end of Wide Awake, almost ordering him to get his act together if he’s to fulfill his responsibilities as an effective father who inhabits the same time zone as the rest of his family. He may be hopeful that things can change for the better, but true to his forthright nature, Berliner is not sanguine about those prospects. “I still have a big problem. I don’t think it will go away so easily.”

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