November: All These Sleepless Nights

“Dazed and Confused”

Ohad Landesman (Tel Aviv University)

Michał Marczak’s All These Sleepless Nights (2016) is one of those films that feels so fresh, unique, and original, that to tag it with the often-used catchphrase “docufiction” may essentially lead us nowhere. On the other hand, here is a movie that makes a point about the value of going nowhere, and transcends the boundaries of conventional documentary while getting there. Focusing on two young men in their early twenties as they roam the streets of Warsaw to search for fleeting moments of love and excitement, All These Sleepless Nights becomes an experiential study of youth, with all the weird feelings and strong emotions attached to it. Not interested in big social questions or political issues, Marczak cut down his film from around a year of footage from the life of its two main characters, Krzysztof Bagiński and Michal Huszcza. He documented them with a poetic intimacy, reminiscent at times of a Terrence Malick film, as they flirted around in house parties, danced the night away in rave concerts, and took early walks during sunrise. Yet one wonders: is this the voice of a new millennial generation in Warsaw circa 2015, or do the two young men play no one but themselves? Such unresolved confusion is crucial to the film’s strategy of hybridity. On the one hand, Marczak decides to capture the hedonistic experience of Bagiński and Huszcza without offering us much context or background information; as a result, both men stand for a new generation born in Poland after the end of communism, roaming freely around a flourishing city at a very specific moment in time. On the other hand, they are performing as themselves without pretending to be anyone else, so nothing is simulated or dictated for them in advance.

Early in the movie, in the midst of this nihilistic and careless lifestyle, Michal introduces his ex-girlfriend Eva to Krysztof, and what happens next is the closest the movie will ever get to a narrative thread. Marczak, however, is not really interested in exploring the inevitable jealousy or betrayal of friendship, even if those are natural outcomes of such a millennial ménage à trois. His camera becomes endlessly curious about his subjects, lusting, as they do, for some unreachable satisfaction, observing their latent wish to interact. Marczak, who engineered a special lightweight rig so he could move freely with his subjects, strives to be in sync with his characters, adjusting the camera to their pace and movements until it feels like the camera becomes another participant. It never stops swinging and swirling around Krzysztof, Michal, and Eva, caring less about destinations and more about wandering. The characters are seemingly indifferent to the camera’s presence, roaming the streets aimlessly, invading other people’s backyards, and crashing parties to which they are not invited. Eventually, one-night stands and evanescent all-night parties lead to loneliness and boredom.

While Marczak is interested in observing, he gives little respect to sound synchronicity, the traditional hallmark of similar documentary strategies for the past few decades. The ecstatic and hypnotic soundtrack, embellished extensively with house and techno music, does not so much attest to a lived experience, but rather simulates a liminal zone between document and fiction. There is very little natural sound, no use of boom mics to support the hand-held aesthetics, and the dialogue is entirely re-recorded to grant the film a dream-like quality.

So, what do we make of a film like All These Sleepless Nights in terms of its epistemological status? It certainly belongs to one of the most striking developments in recent documentary cinema, the emergence of observational hybrids that blur or simply ignore the distinctions between fiction and nonfiction, staking out instead a territory in between real facts and fabricated fiction. All These Sleepless Nights feels too intimate and contrived to be a documentary, but also too spontaneous and immediate to be purely fiction. While characters seem to perform in literally every scene of the film, a great amount of honesty and sincerity can be traced in their filmic confessions and exposure. In one striking scene Bagiński walks through a traffic jam, where drivers stand frozen next to their cars, all looking towards the opposite direction. The camera hides from us what they are looking at, and the whole sequence seems contrived and performed, in a manner that does not even slightly attempt to camouflage its artificiality. “This all feels so unreal,” says one character in a typically delirious moment at a late-night house party. “What we’re doing right now,” he goes on, “it’s not real life.” Is he referring to his narcotic experience or commenting on the documenting strategy he is participating in?

While it becomes hard to tell what is staged and what is documented in Marczak’s film, its enigmatic construction produces, if nothing else, an immersive experience. With a thin plot and only a very basic dramatic skeleton that is subsumed in observation, the existential quality of this movie places both Marczak and viewers in the midst of this unsustainable lifestyle. At times, and not only during parties, All These Sleepless Nights feels like a cinematic dance, an exchange of loving gestures between a documentarist and his subjects. Marczak never shies away from the irresponsible hedonism of his characters and always manifests his shameless infatuation with their daily life. Such lack of pretense on his part infuses his film with honesty and authenticity, making it feel extremely real and highly cinematic at the same time.

“Documentary Hydra”

Ania Ostrowska (University of Southampton)

Watching Michał Marczak’s All These Sleepless Nights, all I could think of was Andrzej Wajda’s Innocent Sorcerers (1960) and Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria (2015): two very different films featuring young people roaming their cities. Notably, both of these films are fiction.

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While some critics agree with David Erlich that Sleepless Nights is in fact “the movie that Terrence Malick has been trying to make,” most reviews refer to Marczak’s film as “constructed reality,” a “docu-fiction hybrid,” a “quasi documentary,” or just “documentary.” In 2016, Marczak won the directing prize at Sundance in the World Cinema Documentary competition, and since then his film has entered festivals most often as documentary. Yet, this is a reductive categorization of the film. Documentary has always been such a broad term that to be able to speak of fiction-documentary hybrids, we would need to define some essential features of each filmmaking mode. For example, traditional forms of exposition like interviews and observational footage often fall on the side of documentary. Marczak picks and chooses from this repertoire; speaking against exposition, he describes talking heads as “the least respectful thing you can do for an audience,” so most of his footage is observational as he follows his characters on their endless peregrinations. The film, however, is framed by the voiceover of Kris, the main character, in the style of diary entries offering snippets of adolescent philosophy interspersed with random factoids. Voice of God it is not, but it’s not that far from the stuff autobiographical documentaries are made of.

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Another paradigmatic feature of documentary filmmaking is working with non-actors and without a script. In the strictly observational mode, filmmakers take time to befriend their contributors before the shooting commences, so the latter are more comfortable playing themselves for the benefit of the documentary camera. Marczak spent some time hanging around Warsaw, first to find his perfect “characters” and then to get to know them. Yet many scenes feel heavily scripted, with conversations full of awkward phrases, perhaps intended to seem idiosyncratic and poetic but sounding contrived, especially in their original Polish. Most of the dialogue resembles clumsy improvisation of indie fiction (with a budget too small to afford any coaching) rather than intimate documentary observation. It starts making sense when you learn that the short script was revised on an ongoing basis with the two main protagonists’ substantial contribution: in doing so, they crossed the line from being documentary subjects to eager yet amateurish collaborators.

Truly observed in Sleepless Nights is the background action: lush party scenes and sometimes hilarious, sometimes aggressive interactions with random passers-by. But the choice of filming at real-life house parties, or in Warsaw parks and pubs, belongs more in the toolbox of a DIY fiction filmmaker than of a documentarian. Marczak followed the documentary protocol of having all “real” people appearing in the frame sign release forms, but despite his intentions, some of the partiers still read more like extras instructed to “have fun.” Moreover, the most striking scene resulting from this use of documentary locations is one in which Kris dances among cars stopped in the middle of one of Warsaw’s main avenues for a mysterious reason. Although viewers are invited to behold Kris’ fluid moves in this unusual setting, they may never find out that the director here ingeniously took advantage of the “W hour”: the celebration of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising taking place every year on August 1, when the entire city pauses in silence for one minute. Does it matter? Maybe not, but this choice pushes the film further toward fiction.

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Finally, Marczak lives up to his indie maverick credentials in his camerawork. Barring one very short sequence, presumably shot by Kris and featuring his naked lover Eva frolicking, there is no shaky, grainy, hand-held footage. Instead, the director, also acting as main DP (aided by Maciej Twardowski), modified a Steadicam so he could film his characters from very close up but in “this dreamy cinematic way”. This, too, makes the film feel more like fiction.

Does any documentary truth emerge from between dreamy cinematography and awkwardly constructed dialogue? The film suggests that perhaps it’s better to drop the investigation into docu-fiction hybrids altogether and admire (or cringe at) Marczak’s film as an auteurist hydra instead.

One thought on “November: All These Sleepless Nights

  1. When The Brig and David Holzman’s Diary appeared in the 1960s the idea was to demonstrate how the new look of documentary could not only produce fiction but enhance it. The point being made depended upon a distinction between the two modes. Films like All Those Sleepless Nights are made to demonstrate that the distinction, if not pointless, has now (after 50 years of postmodernity) given way to a sliding scale of relative values. There is no documentary vs. fiction but only various degrees of each in a given text. This is no surprise. Categories no longer mean as much as these sliding scales and the hybrids that appear along them. So… is there still a point to caring if this is or isn’t a documentary? Or do we simply say it is a work that is “documentary-esque” with the understanding that documentary is a relative term? (I’d use the word, “realist” but that’s already overburdened). Perhaps we will evolve to the point where films are categorized more by “look” than by genre (as the function of genre film seems to be to subvert genre). A film is not a pure “documentary” because nothing is. Rather it is a film whose design points it in the direction of non-fiction. The documentary we are called upon to believe, the social or anthropological documentary will then exist either as a product of doublethink (I know it can be faked but I don’t want to believe it) or Kantian “as if” (I have decided to watch this as if it were true). This said, the various pleasures of All Those Sleepless Nights (e.g. its construction of memory) eclipse its function as formalist critique.

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