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A Journal of Insomnia Is A Surreal Interactive Documentary Experience

Interactive documentary about losing sleep, gains notice at Tribeca.

Imagine this: an appointment at 3:14am. A phone call at 3:12am from Quebec announces the appointment minutes before it happens. Logging onto the A Journal of Insomnia website, white digital artifacts arrange themselves on screen, gradually shaping themselves into an approximation of a mouth. An accented, ethereal digital voice intones, “At night I can't sleep. In developed countries, 30 percent of people are insomniacs like me. Since the fall of 2012, privately under the cover of darkness, I have been meeting them and collecting their stories. Welcome to A Journal of Insomnia. Only by making an appointment and coming back tonight will you receive the full experience. It's your turn now to invest part of your night.” The disembodied voice is followed by a ticking clock and ambient sound collage, which is at once dreamy, disconcerting and beautiful. The whole effect is made all the more surreal in those early interactive moments as the user is drawn toward the computer screen like Max Renn in David Cronenberg's Videodrome.


In an appointment with Sarah, a Montreal insomniac, viewers will find themselves voyeuristically staring down her hallway, which terminates in an empty, illuminated bathroom. The viewer then navigates Sarah's apartment as she relates several insomniac stories, dreams, and observations. The filmmakers and designers fashioned the Sarah documentary to look like degraded VHS. Scenes rewind, flicker, fast forward, and wobble just like that archaic video tape, with the hallway functioning as a nervous system of experience―the point from which Sarah's insomniac life unfolds. Again, Videodrome becomes an analogue in the Sarah experience. One also thinks of David Lynch or early, experimental Miranda July as visual and atmospheric touchstones for the Sarah segment. The project as a whole shares something with the cyber excesses examined narratively in the phenomenal UK television series Black Mirror, which cannot be seen in the US (wink, wink). As in the Charlie Brooker series, participants in A Journal's interactive world become hypnotized by the “black mirror” of the computer screen. One can't help but be pulled into the creators and insomniacs' sleepless world. The idea for A Journal of Insomnia originated with Hugues Sweeney, producer for French Program's Digital Studio at Canada's National Film Board (NFB). Sweeney says of the project, “I got hooked on insomnia because it is an extremely widespread phenomenon. And I think internet is the best way to talk about it. Internet equals insomnia.” The creators included Thibaut Duverneix (direction, post-production), Guillaume Braune (creative direction), Bruno Choinière (art direction), and Philippe Lambert (music, sound design). All four collaborated on the interactive scenario and website, which is the delivery system for the experimental documentary. A sixth creator, Judith Portier, lent her skills as installation Art Director. How does a project this unique get off the ground in the first place? Over the last few years NFB has quietly become a digital content pioneer. Fast Company even called NFB “one of the world's hippest digital content hubs.” With A Journal of Insomnia, one witnesses the truth behind the hype. To accompany the website, A Journal of Insomnia's creators built a monolith-like black box into which people crawl and experience the insomniac perspective, mediated by its physical space and the digital ether. Presented with a glowing computer screen inside the box's dark interior, people are encouraged to type or draw their responses to various queries on insomnia. Answers are then simultaneously projected onto the box's exterior and inputed into A Journal's interactive database, creating a type of ever-growing Borgesian map of insomnia. The creators hope that the interactive production will not only “shed light on the unique universe of those who do not sleep, but will also allow users to experience sleep deprivation.” To that end, insomniac users are encouraged to submit content to further illuminate this world. “Staying awake at night became a problem the day time became money,” says Sweeney. “Staying awake at night became a trigger for anxiety because it meant one could not be productive the next day. Insomnia exists in a similar fashion throughout all developed countries, and 90 percent of insomnia is related to stress and anxiety.”

“This says a great deal about our society,” adds Sweeney, who was inspired by Roger Ekirch's research into human sleep patterns. Ekirch found that prior to the industrial revolution, humans commonly experienced sleep in a fragmented way. They would wake up in the middle of the night and do things, like pray, perform house work, or have a little romp with their better halves. But, artificial lighting and the industrial rhythms of work forever altered humanity's sleep cycle. Ekrich extrapolates his research to conclude that insomnia sufferers are actually more attuned to natural sleep rhythms than others. As for the project's visual interactivity, it is striking and immersive, but Phillipe Lambert's music and sound design renders the total effect especially resonant. Lambert comes from both a psychedelic rock and experimental sound background, and his pretty yet haunting drones and percolating electronic bleeps cocoon the Journal experience. To the ears, Lambert's work sounds as though it were created with synthesizers, but this wasn't so. “I really used stuff from webcam testimonials and treated it,” says Lambert, who processed user-generated material through Adobe Flash. “You can take a sound and pitch it down and it becomes a dark bass note, a melody or choir effect. I was using musique concrète techniques to create a soundtrack.” Thibaut Duverneix shot Sarah's scenes with a Red camera, then transferred the footage to VHS to degrade the look. “We wanted each portrait to look visually how they experience their insomnia,” says Duverneix. For Sarah, he and the other creators wanted to depict the “type of imaginary 80s” in which Sarah lives. “It was a nightmare,” adds Duverneix, commenting on the look. “I was really pushing it far from interactivity. Far from making it look good, honest and intimate.” The Creative Director, Gauillame Braune, says “the process was long and complicated because we're not documentary filmmakers but interactive people.” Braune found it was quite different moving from his traditional role in which he creates “containers” for beautiful content, to actually creating content. In this case, reverse-engineering the four insomniacs' documentary material into a content system. “The most important part of the project is that we are four different guys with four different backgrounds,” says Braune. “Phillipe is into sound and Thibaut is a director of really fashionable, slick and sensual content, whereas me and Bruno are into interactive design.” The installation, however, isn't simply about insomnia. “The box is supposed to pick up the vibe, the pulse of the city, so that we could make a statement that the city never sleeps,” says Art Director Bruno Choinière. “In a really early concept, the box was supposed to travel around the world and connect information about light, activities, sound, vibration, whatever.” While A Journal of Insomnia doesn't exactly do that, it does prove that its creators are as daring as they are daft. Imagine the US government financing this project―it would be cast as liberal, nanny state decadence. Sweeney & Co.'s project is evidence that the digital, online landscape can be more than just listicles and ad dollar-driven editorial. With A Journal of Insomnia, the filmmakers and interactive designers warped the internet, making it approach the wildest dreams of science fiction, while potentially opening a window into the global insomniac mind. A Journal of Insomnia was exhibited as part of the Tribeca Film Festival's Storyscapes at the Bombay Sapphire House of Imagination April 19-21. Visit the experience online at

All images courtesy of The NFB.