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Wide Awake (2006)

Unrated | | Documentary | 20 January 2006 (USA)
A filmmaker documents his bout with insomnia.

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A filmmaker documents his bout with insomnia.

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Winsome confessional narrative, decent intro to the problem of chronic insomnia & terrific montage work
3 January 2007 | by See all my reviews

The filmmaker, Alan Berliner, has suffered from lifelong insomnia. He gets only two to four hours sleep most nights, and as a result he feels fatigued and irritable nearly all the time. On the other hand, this night owl does his most creative work while everyone else is asleep. So his insomnia pattern is highly reinforced by his proved nocturnal productivity. In any event, this film demonstrates his problem and calls upon the collective expertise of five well regarded sleep scientists to enlighten him and the viewer about the general problem of insomnia.

The film serves another purpose as well: to present the story of Berliner's life, his autobiography, or at least parts of it. He covers everyone from his grandparents to his new infant son. We get to visit with his mother and his sister and see his baby pictures, as well as stills taken in 1984 when he was just getting rolling in film-making. Berliner also shows off his very impressive collections of film clips, photos, sound effects, newspaper clippings, and found objects (a drawer full of wristwatch parts, for example). What we have here is an impassioned, driven, obsessive fellow, overworked by his own decree. Imaginative, fast paced visual sequences in this film demonstrate that Berliner is, among other talents, a first rate film editor, an astonishing master of montage.

I invited two internationally known sleep researchers – Robert Sack and Alfred Lewy - who happen to be good buddies and faculty colleagues of mine, to attend this screening with me. We spoke together over a beer after the film, which both of them thoroughly enjoyed. Dr. Sack, who created the sleep medicine program at my medical school, OHSU, is in fact eager to acquire a DVD copy of the film for use as an instructional aid.

Drs. Lewy and Sack both felt that the film was really more about Alan Berliner than about sleep disorders. For example, the doctors call attention to the fact that specific treatment options are alluded to in only hazy terms. The use of melatonin and bright light as treatments for delayed sleep phase syndrome (DSPS), which is what Berliner suffers from, are not spelled out in any useful detail (e.g., melatonin dose and optimal timing; type, timing and duration of exposure of bright light).

All three of us (Lewy, Sack and I) also have our doubts about Mr. Berliner's level of motivation for treatment, given the upside of his disorder, i.e., his record of nocturnal productivity. Anyone in such circumstances could hardly be faulted for having trepidations about correcting DSPS. Also, any behavioral pattern marked by such chronicity – 30 to 40 years perhaps in the case of Berliner's insomnia – is difficult to change by any means.

Curiously, Dr. Sack notes, few "night owls" - or, for that matter, "morning larks" (those with the opposite disorder, Advanced Sleep Phase Syndrome, people who wake up very early and go to sleep early as well) - seek treatment. Most somehow adapt themselves to their disorder, tailoring their lives accordingly, as Berliner has so obviously done. Clinically, Drs. Sack and Lewy tell me, there is an overlap between mood disorders and sleep phase disorders (though we saw or heard no evidence that depression is a problem for Berliner).

All-in-all I would say that this film (a) is highly entertaining, and (b) works fairly well on both the level of confessional narrative and as an introductory overview of the problem of deeply entrenched insomnia. The film was produced by HBO and will be shown on the HBO channel in May, 2007. My grades: 8/10 (B+) (Seen on 12/30/06)


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