Documentary Filmmaker Dreams of Good Night’s Sleep

Audiences are waking up to the talents of New York City filmmaker Alan Berliner, who premiered his latest documentary “Wide Awake” at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival. The Emmy-Award winner examines his own life-long struggle with insomnia, a problem that can be caused by any one of about 80 different sleep disorders that plague millions of people.

In this first-person account, which Berliner directed, wrote, and narrated, he views his sleeplessness as a blessing and a curse. While he works 24-hour shifts feverishly cataloging movie reels and memorabilia, and editing (and re-editing) his latest projects, he realizes that most of the country calmly and quietly enjoys a good night’s sleep.

“Since I am a card-carrying sufferer of insomnia, and an extreme night owl to boot, I had good days and bad days making the film – all of which made it both painful and comical when I was too tired to actually work on the film,” he says.

In addition to fatigue, classic symptoms of severe sleep deprivation include increased sensitivity to pain and noise, irritability, confusion, upset stomach, and hallucinations – all of which may seem comical to others, though quite painful to the insomniac.

Using old film clips and retro songs, “Wide Awake” tells the darkly amusing tale of how Berliner can’t seem to edit his internal movie screen, which runs 24-hour newsreels, features, and documentaries. He wants to fade to black, but can’t seem to turn off the projector in his mind.

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Berliner’s fascination with the connection between information overload, movies, and sleep began more than 25 years ago with his experimental film “City Edition” (1980). In this black-and-white short — a mere cat nap of a film, so to speak — he uses a newspaper printing press to begin the film, which consists entirely of a dizzying montage of found footage including old news items from around the world. Each film clip connects visually, aurally, or thematically until a loose pattern emerges. At the end of the film, a man wakes and turns off his alarm clock, indicating the rush of images was only a dream, and the images only momentarily meaningful.

“The purpose of showing the images as dream is to make sense of non-sense. The use of the dream sequence in ‘City Edition’ is a way of linking the overwhelming array of information… that is inextricably woven into the experience of modern urban existence,” Berliner says.

He takes delight in exploring the “factory of where random juxtapositions and implausible connections are and can be manufactured… every night.” That is, when he gets the luxury of actually falling asleep.

Like many other artists, Berliner claims to do his best work after midnight. Also like other artists, he prefers to explore issues close to home. His previous films are more like personal essays than actual documentaries in that they ask more questions than they answer. “The Sweetest Sound” studies the universal relationship between a person’s name and his or her identity. “Nobody’s Business” is a warts-and-all look at his late father. “Intimate Stranger” recounts the life of his world-traveling grandfather; and “The Family Album” combines found footage from old home movies to make a statement about the role of family in our lives.

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“These films are designed to transcend the specificity of the details of my own particular family,” he says. “In the spirit of the way that memoirs are supposed to work, my story becomes a window out to viewers that opens up a series of questions… and offers new ways of looking at themselves. I try to tap into the common levels of experience that people have.”

Whether the common experience is maintaining family relations, realizing your identity, or just trying to get a little shut-eye, Berliner takes his position as personal essayist seriously.

“I like to think that I have a contract with the audience,” he says. “They trust me enough to know that I never intend to be self-indulgent or sentimentalize. My films are open and honest and made in the spirit of opening a subject, using humor or irony when appropriate, with naturally occurring pathos.”


by Leslie Halpern