Parenthood, especially early on, is the mother of sleep deprivation. Yet the exhaustion that comes with it can also be a source of inspiration, as Montrealer Hugues Sweeney discovered in the summer of 2009 shortly after becoming a father for the first time.
Like most newborns, Sweeney's daughter was not a "good" sleeper. Almost without fail, she'd wake every three hours, around the clock, week after week, forcing father and daughter into many an unwanted 4 a.m. bonding session. "Still, it got me thinking," he recalled recently. "Here I am up in the middle of the night – how many other people are up at the same time we are and why?" Then Sweeney wondered how many of these people might be trying to find solace on the Internet. And then, since he'd joined the National Film Board of Canada that year as an interactive producer and "one of the primary thematics of French NFB is mental health," he started to think about what a persistent, unforgiving lack of sleep might do to a person.
Sweeney's nocturnal musings have now resulted in an immersive, interactive journey into the liminal universe of sleep deprivation inhabited by an estimated one of every three Canadians. Sweeney, as executive producer of the NFB's Digital Studio (Montreal), has overseen more than two years of development and production; A Journal of Insomnia has its premiere online and in Manhattan Thursday evening.
The New York showcase is courtesy of the 12th annual Tribeca Film Festival, which has chosen A Journal of Insomnia as one of five finalists in its first-ever $18,000 (U.S.) Storyscapes competition honouring advances in interactive/new media storytelling – what some like to call "transmedia." To qualify, Sweeney and his team had to agree to prepare an installation for public participation in a SoHo building dubbed the House of Imagination. The installation – "a black confessional cube," in the words of A Journal of Insomnia creative director Guillaume Braun – will sit on a small incline in a darkened room. Visitors will enter through a tilted doorway, then sit before a screen from which a disembodied female voice – "the Voice of Insomnia" – will ask such questions as, "During the day, are you anxious about the coming night?" and "What is preventing you from sleeping?"
But the real action – what Sweeney calls A Journal of Insomnia's "radical merging of art and design with technology and social media" – will occur online. Starting at 11 a.m. Thursday, people are invited to go to nfb.ca/insomnia where they'll see an invitation to "surrender part of [their] night." Individuals will type in their e-mail addresses and phone numbers, and in doing so "make an appointment with insomnia" – to meet one of four real-life insomniacs culled from 25 "auditioned" earlier this year. "Each character" – one's a travel agent, another a firefighter and so on – "represents the problem of insomnia in his or her own way. Each illustrates a state of mind and how it affects the body."
Later that day – between 10 p.m. and 3:00 a.m. – a character will call the phone number provided earlier and direct the appointee to a unique Web link that will take him or her, layer by layer, ever deeper into the multifarious realms of insomnia. With most interactive experiences, the content is created first, then, post-production, the user is asked to respond with comments and actions. Here, the NFB went immediately to the insomniacs themselves for much of the content. About 2,000 of them responded last September to a late-night Internet invitation from the Voice of Insomnia to "record your thoughts, type your impressions, draw your mind," then upload the material, along with answers to questions like "What is your relationship with your alarm clock?" to an NFB micro-site.
Sweeney says he and his crew – it also includes sound designer Philippe Lambert and art director Bruno Choiniere – have no clinical or "therapeutic intention" with A Journal of Insomnia. The concern here is personal and anthropological – how insomnia is a solitary, often shameful experience (an insomniac, for instance, often will wait 10 years before seeking medical help, says Braun) at the same time as it's shared by millions in the developed world, with profound ramifications for each sufferer's family, work performance and leisure time. Braun's hope is that A Journal of Insomnia will prove so involving it will "make participants live what those people [insomniacs] live" – and this from a man who says he's had chronic insomnia since childhood.
Meanwhile, what happens if you sign up and sleep through the phone call? Not to worry, Braun says. "We're going to send you an e-mail and say, 'Come back tomorrow, you missed your appointment.'" The current plan is to have A Journal of Insomnia run indefinitely after its Thursday bow, all through the nights.
The Other Storyscape Finalists
The National Film Board's A Journal of Insomnia is the only Canadian entry among the five finalists for the Tribeca Film Festival's inaugural Storyscapes transmedia competition "celebrating new trends in digital media … and content creators who employ an interactive, Web-based or cross-platform approach to story creation." The other finalists (below) in this category at the festival (April 17-28 in Lower Manhattan) are all from the United States.
Robots in Residence
With filmmaker Brent Hoff as co-director, "robotist" Alexander Reben has adapted his master's thesis at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on human-robot relations to create a new storytelling form. Festivalgoers will answer questions, some very personal, posed by squeaky-voiced, camera-equipped "cutiebots," then interviews will be edited into a documentary.
Star Wars Uncut
"Technologistioner" Casey Pugh turned a lot of heads in 2010 with his fan-film remake of 1977's Star Wars IV: A New Hope. He's back with a remake of The Empire Strikes Back, composed of 15-second clips from the original re-imagined by fans, then pieced together online.
That would be Hurricane Sandy. This "participatory documentary/community-generated narrative" combines video, audio, photographs and text from those who experienced last year's devastating storm and are now rebuilding lives, homes and businesses in its wake.
This Exquisite Forest
A riff on the Surrealist game Exquisite Corpse (in which players add to a drawing or sentence, potentially ad infinitum, without seeing previous contributions), conceived by Chris Milk and Aaron Koblin (of Johnny Cash Project fame), produced by Google Chrome and the Tate Modern, London. Visitors create short animations in their browsers, add them to other animations and become part of an ever-branching narrative.