NFB Brings Interactive 'A Journal of Insomnia' to Tribeca Film Festival

Photo taken from the production, courtesy of the NFB.
I make an effort to avoid blogging during the nighttime. My studies taught me that I could complete far more writing during the times when everyone else is asleep; however, I also learned that staying up through the wee hours is not a good habit for neurotic wannabe-writer types. Staying awake while alternatively typing away and trolling Twitter isn’t the healthiest of behaviours. There’s also a certain stereotype to bloggers that I make an effort to avoid: no posts on a Friday night, say, because that’s when one should get out and be social. Most of the times, though, these nights out just involve me going to a movie. It’s funny how both options result in me sitting in a dark room by myself, yet one is more socially acceptable than the other is.

A similar theme underlies the new interactive media project A Journal of Insomnia launching soon from the National Film Board of Canada (NFB). Journal of Insomnia goes live with a nocturnal premiere on April 18th when it debuts at the Tribeca Film Festival’s inaugural Storyscapes program. Insomnia, appropriately enough, invites users to wake up when most people are going to sleep.

The NFB held a preview of A Journal of Insomnia today at Camera Bar in Toronto (which is much like an upscale SAW Video but with a legit screening room and a less hipstery vibe). A Journal of Insomnia is a cutting edge new project from the creative shift at the NFB that advances new modes of audience engagement in the digital age. The project, conceived by Hughes Sweeney, is a one-of-a-kind endeavour that involves its audience from the early stages of pre-production right through to exhibition. A Journal of Insomnia takes interactivity to new heights, as the public is actively engaged in both production and reception, versus the mostly one-way “choose your own adventure” style stories that have dominated transmedia content.

Many bloggers and social media junkies can probably relate to the stories offered by the roster of insomniacs in A Journal of Insomnia. Several thousand people shared their stories—often quite intimately—when the NFB offered a call for participants. These tales, captured as diaries through micro-sites and videos, reveal the state of mind that arises when one’s biological clock runs in a time zone different from everyone else’s. A Journal of Insomnia gets really meta, however, by having users experience these stories on an insomniac’s sleep schedule. To experience the project, users simply log on to www.nfb.ca/insomnia and then select a twilight time slot. Users then receive a phone call on the selected time between 10 pm and 7 am (when most people are usually asleep), which wakes them up in the middle of the night and prompts them to experience insomnia night-owl to night-owl.
Photo by Josée Lecompte
The project also works as a live installation. A Journal of Insomnia will go live as an interactive installation at Tribeca at the same time that it goes online. The live version of Insomnia appears as a large black box in a dark room. Users enter the box and are greeted by questions from an insomniac that appears on a video screen. Other participants watch from the outside and study the Q&A between the insomniacs and the participant. Unlike watching Tilda Swinton sleep in a glass box, A Journal of Insomnia displays people awake and re-creates the sense of anxiety one has over sleeplessness.

The project therefore puts lived experience as a new form of storytelling. Both the confessional and the act viewing show the kind of life that exists after dark. The Internet never sleeps, and it’s a hub for intimacy and connectivity for those who want to escape society’s clock. Moreover, the project could easily keep users up all night, whether they explore the web of stories for hours or venture elsewhere and feed on the Internet’s addictiveness. A Journal of Insomnia seems like something out of a Cronenberg movie (either David or Brandon). The underlying message of the interactive project, however, is that insomnia is a symptom of society; it’s an indication that the structures, routines, and scheduled activities of everyday life create unintended mental health issues. A Journal of Insomnia could create sufficient awareness of mental illness through its innovative interactivity that re-creates sleeplessness as an avenue for understanding.

The installation will be open in New York City April 18-21 at the Bombay Sapphire House of Imagination.
The web version will be available at nfb.ca/insomnia on April 18th, 2013.