Sleep and sleeplessness

    SLEEP: A private investigation into insomnia leads to wider questions about humanity's place in the world.

    Eyes shut, a never-ending line of white sheep inhabit the frame: 1, 4, 12, 58, 102, 234, 599, 1227. As the mind gradually slips into sleep, the count drops to a whisper and words start to run into one another. At last, the sheep arrive at a grove, and a dreamlike sequence is alternated by a view of waves breaking at nighttime, and a man waking hours before the first appearance of light in the sky.

    A personal quest

    After yet another sleep cut short, Belgian filmmaker Boris Van der Avoort decides to «enter into the night differently» to seek out the reasons for his chronic insomnia. This becomes a pretext for a personal quest, which places him at the centre of the investigation, where he is both the researcher and the subject.

    The filmmaker’s probe informs the composition of The Wakeful Sleeper, borrowing tropes from crime fiction as a storytelling device to guide the viewer and offer points of orientation. Once the viewer is familiarised with the narrative form, Van der Avoort ventures in and out with great liberty, translating his investigation into a cinematic journey, where at times surreal visual and acoustic experiments coalesce into spellbinding sequences. The investigation commences from his bed. When he jerks awake, his bed turns into a crime scene, with a chalk outline drawn on the bed sheets to portray various sleeping positions he adopts while failing to stay asleep – from the foetal position to that of a log, soldier or parachutist. The probe then heads into «other places, other times and other species», following the clues pinned to the ‘working’ wall that connect the seemingly disparate insights about the mysterious condition of insomnia.

    have wild animals resorted to nocturnality to avoid the one species that has earned an ill fame when it comes to co-existence?

    Animal insomnia

    In search of answers, the filmmaker examines the physical world around him, studying the insomnia in plants and the animal habitat. Akin to the human species, plants wake in response to changing light. Yet plants in greenhouses do not seem to share the prerogative of repose as they are exposed to grow lights to produce year-round. In a village near the town of Rennes, such artificial lights in local greenhouses bathe the area in fuchsia-pink hues, creating an artificial aurora borealis. Residents escape the scintillating light at night by closing their shutters, but they can still hear the birds. «Have the birds become insomniac» – the filmmaker wonders – «like plants in greenhouses, their growth is accelerated by exposure to artificial light?»

    The proliferation of artificial light in urban areas may certainly be tied to an erratic nighttime activity of wildlife. A 2018 scientific study found that human activity or in some cases human disturbance has an effect on the routines and behaviours of wildlife, with animals shifting their activities from day to night. Have humans, the «major invasive species of our globe» who have «already modified 3/4 of the Earth’s surface», driven wildlife into the dark half of the day? And have wild animals resorted to nocturnality to avoid the one species that has earned an ill fame when it comes to co-existence? As the world is becoming increasingly crowded, the filmmaker, in his very personal quest on understanding his insomnia, foregrounds a larger issue of the human place in nature, compelling us to think why wildlife is resorting to nocturnal refuge to adopt to human-dominated landscapes and what these changes mean for our ecosystems.

    In a world that tirelessly imposes its rhythm, a nighttime that belongs to oneself may feel like a long-lost right to autonomy and intimacy. As the filmmaker contemplates on the added value of insomnia, his sleep tests reveal numerous apnea events accompanied by almost twice as many micro-awakenings. Turning to nature once again in a bid to explain his micro-awakenings, the filmmaker draws on the observations about dolphins and whales that are prompted to rise to the surface during sleep when their brains detect a lack of oxygen: Is my brain making me rise to the surface, like the dolphins and whales? – the filmmaker speculates.

    The Wakeful Sleeper is both inquisitive and reflective on the notions of sleep and sleeplessness

    Made of Sand

    The Wakeful Sleeper is both inquisitive and reflective on the notions of sleep and sleeplessness, the topics that remain a relentless source of intrigue for scientists and artists alike. Tying humans into nature, the film touches on curious observations from across species in an effort to fathom the obscure condition. Do the newborn dream during the extensive spans of shut-eye in their first years of life? And if they do dream, what experiences do they draw on? Is sleep an interlude between two wakeful periods? But for bats, which spend some 4/5 of their life asleep, is the wakeful state the interlude? After a series of questions posed, the film slowly peters out. Following a successful nose operation on Van der Avoort’s airways to improve breathing, the film draws to a close at last, with waves ebbing to reveal a soundly sleeping man, made of sand.

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    Sevara Pan
    Journalist and film critic.
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