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(Experiments in Time, Light, and Motion and HBO Documentary films, 2006; available on DVD)
When Alan Berliner first showed his documentary about insomnia to a group of college students, five or six of them nodded off. But don't take that as a bad review: undergrads get less sleep than anyone in the U.S., and Wide Awake is an engaging peek into the filmmaker's strange, sleep-deprived life.
At first it's hard to relate to Berliner, who spends most of his time making movies and collecting old film reels and has the luxury of waking up after 9 a.m. He's a night owl.
But aren't we all? We work late, eat late, check e-mail at midnight, watch Jay Leno, and fuel ourselves with gallons of coffee. Wide Awake considers the toll this poor “sleep hygiene” takes on society—from car accidents to medical errors to bad political decisions—but primarily conveys the disoriented feeling of insomnia through rapid-fire photo sequences and repetitive sounds. If you have ever lied awake at night with the same thoughts looping through your head, listening to the thump-thump of your own heartbeat, you'll see a glimpse of yourself.
The scenes of Berliner consulting with (numerous) sleep specialists are funny and informative: you might be surprised by the number of factors that influence sleep quality, including genetics, childhood trauma, circadian rhythms, exposure to light, and diet. But the conversations that Berliner has with his mother, sister, and wife around the breakfast table are the most revealing. “This film took your obsession,” his mother observes, “to greater heights.” By the end, it seems like Berliner gets what he deserves. “I think I'm addicted to being awake,” he says. Still, how many of us might say the same?
Wide Awake is not a fully satisfying look at what some doctors consider a public health crisis. But Berliner deserves credit for recognizing that sleep is a subject worthy of more research, more public discussion, and more art.