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Who Needs Sleep? Insomnia as Inspiration in Alan Berliner's 'Wide Awake'

By Kathy McDonald

Alan Berliner in his studio in the middle of the night, from his film Wide Awake, which airs on HBO. Courtesy of Alan Berliner

Some people count sheep. Others meditate; some medicate. Alan Berliner has tried all three strategies and many more to fall asleep. In 2004, he began Wide Awake, which uses his personal battle with insomnia as a way into not only the nature and need for sleep (and the ramifications of the lack thereof), but also into the nature of his own creativity and productivity.

Infusing the film with this dynamic psychological component is Berliner's own tortured relationship to sleep, which is inexorably tied to his creative being. He works best at night; it's essential to his creative process. Although he shares an apartment with his wife and baby son, he effectively inhabits a different time zone from them, which serves him well as a filmmaker, but puts him in conflict with his role as father and husband. "Changing my relationship to sleep threatens who I think I am," Berliner discovers.

As the birth of his first child approaches, Berliner realizes he must change his sleep patterns and alter his existence as a perennial night owl, and his search for help is chronicled in the film. Recognizing he will spend years on a project, he wants to satisfy two criteria: fascination and a need--almost a compulsion--to create. "There has to be something about it I need to do, some itch that needs to be scratched, some problem better understood, some journey to go on that I'm willing to take this dive off the cliff," he explains.

Layers of visual and sound material create a depth of detail throughout Wide Awake. Imaginative collages, created from still photos cut from publications and found footage, are intertwined with serious information and research about the nature of sleep and what it takes to fall asleep in today's wired world. Berliner's finely crafted editing and sound design is coupled with humor and precision timing. He's an expert at personal filmmaking, a challenging sub-genre of the documentary form. "I'm in this sort of essay territory, which pushes towards another kind of fringe," explains the director/writer/editor/producer. "Then the film has experimental edges, structurally, stylistically and architecturally, which push it further." His earlier films include Nobody's Business (1996), an exploration of his relationship with his father, and The Sweetest Sound (2001), in which Berliner amiably discovers the other Alan Berliners of the world.

As a subject of his own film, Berliner was as well suited as anyone for a work about insomnia, as he's suffered from sleeplessness since childhood. If he'd taken the conventional approach, he could have placed a newspaper ad in search of subjects or tracked patients at a sleep lab and followed them through coping strategies and possibly recovery.

 "As part of the documentary imperative, everything is usually based on access," Berliner notes. "Someone had special access--to a person, place or organization; to some kind of insider information; to a character or series of characters over time." During the production of Wide Awake, his access to the film's subject-himself--was extraordinary. Not only was he a lifelong insomnia sufferer, but he was willing to work and cooperate as long as it took to make the film; he was allowed not only access to his bedroom at night but also to his dreams and his family members; he was about to have a child; and he was a filmmaker. Finally, his subject wasn't afraid to make fun of himself. "I had access to the inside of someone's head and to someone's innermost thoughts," Berliner points out. "That kind of access is very hard to pass up."

However, the nature of insomnia is such that it is experienced in isolation, basically within oneself. Berliner quickly found himself in a confluence of his work and life, suffering a self-inflicted madness, wherein the very task of making the film became one of the reasons why he couldn't sleep. "I found a unique kind of hell, in which I was lying there in bed in the middle of the night watching myself stay awake because I was worrying, thinking, solving the film," Berliner explained following the film's premiere at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival. "Being awake in the middle of the night became the only way I could make the film and negotiate all these associated conundrums, contradictions and paradoxes thereof."

Wide Awake is scheduled to air on HBO in May. Since its Sundance premiere, Berliner has been on a global, multi-festival run, which, not surprisingly, did nothing to improve his sleep patterns. He's showcased the film for audiences more than 100 times, with stops at Berlin, SxSW, San Francisco, Hot Docs, Jerusalem and International Documentary FilmFestival Amsterdam (IDFA), where a retrospective of his work was shown, and he gave a master class and programmed 10 films. Among his choices: Walter Ruttmann's Berlin: Symphony of a Great City and A Movie by Bruce Conner.

Berliner's selection of films for IDFA included those that impacted or influenced him as a filmmaker. Ruttmann is credited for his groundbreaking, ingenious, rhythmic cutting of picture to a musical beat. Conner is known for his assemblages of pieces from found films. References to both artists can be found in Wide Awake, from a scored montage of a New York night to Berliner's repeated use of archival footage such as sheep jumping over a fence to a montage of lights being switched off. 

A self-confessed image junkie and collector of media since his teens, Berliner surrounds himself with visual and sound material in a meticulously catalogued and boxed archive. As a collagist, he synthesizes and amalgamates discarded materials, from black-and-white instructional films to junked home movies and even his own family's Super-8 films. As caretaker of these discarded, forgotten elements, Berliner has become almost like a parent, giving them life in another context. "At a certain point in time, the image bank reaches a critical mass, and takes on a life of its own," he maintains. "All of these things are metaphor about bringing order to the world--an impossible task. I became captive by process and overload, in my-blessing-is-my-curse sort of way." The materials in his archive vie for attention, inspiring him to make films, but also fueling his insomnia. "I start to think of myself as emblematic of our sleep-deprived culture," Berliner admits.

Capturing sleep and conveying dreams posed numerous and interesting cinematic challenges. The territory of sleep is about images, sounds and voices that go on in a person's mind. Visualizing that flow, both spontaneous and often surreal, intrigued Berliner. But he discovered a rather significant irony: "As someone who loves to edit film, I cannot edit myself to sleep or turn the volume down to zero decibels or go to black." He lays out not only his compulsion but also its inherent paradox. Wide Awake conveys that sense of contradiction completely.

In addition to his film work, Berliner is also a popular instructor at New York University's film school, as well as an installation artist.  His website,, is one of the more interesting out there. Up late at night? Click on one of the site's file drawers to further explore Berliner's universe of waking dreams and fitful sleep.


Kathy A. McDonald is a Los Angeles based freelance writer who dreams of eight hours of uninterrupted sleep each night.