Waking up to Alan Berliner

Insomnia is only the starting point in the latest film by the unconventional New York documentary maker.

alan berliner 88 298 (photo credit: Courtesy)
alan berliner 88 298
(photo credit: Courtesy)
CLIP FROM ALAN BERLINER INTERVIEW - JERUSALEM EXTERIOR SHOT. Jerusalem Cinematheque caf , afternoon. Berliner sits at a table on the balcony with a reporter. As a jazzed-up version of "Hatikvah" plays, there is a montage of jump cuts: the blinding rays of the sun over the city; a shot of the security barrier; a clip of Paul Newman escorting Eva-Marie Saint to dinner at the King David Hotel in Exodus; Eli, Berliner's son, playing with Berliner's wife in their Jerusalem hotel room; Berliner at the Jerusalem Cinematheque at a screening of his movie, Wide Awake; back to the Wall and the sun overhead. The camera finally comes to rest on a cup of orange juice with a blue straw served by a waitress at the caf . BERLINER: Look at that [indicates the juice]. That's beautiful isn't it? So goes a reporter's fantasy of one moment from an Alan Berliner movie about the director's visit to Israel last week for the 23rd Jerusalem Film Festival. He came to attend screenings of Wide Awake, his latest film, as well as to participate in a panel discussion about it. Although he's known as a documentary director, he admits that his films belong to "no genre . . . they're very experimental." For Wide Awake, his account of his ongoing struggle with insomnia, Berliner, 50, a lifelong New Yorker, mixes consultations with sleep doctors, interviews with himself and his family, archival footage, sound effects, dreams and more to create a work that can engage and move even the soundest sleeper. What makes Berliner unique among experimental filmmakers is how entertaining and coherent his movies are. "In order to do what I do, I have to have a contract with the audience," he says, sipping his photogenic orange juice. "They have to be willing to go with me, and if I forget the storytelling, I'm not upholding my part of it. "The film is not really about sleep - sleep is a Trojan horse," he says, although he admits to having been flattered when Dr. Richard Simon, one of the experts he interviewed, told him it was the best film ever made about insomnia. "Insomnia is really about how you take in your life." A central part of Berliner's insomnia comes from the fact that he can't turn off his mind. "I'm an editor, but I can't edit myself to sleep. I can't fade to black," he says. In the past, his family has often been the subject of his work, in movies such as Intimate Stranger (1991), a portrait of his maternal grandfather, and Nobody's Business (1997), a look at his father, another man Berliner found fascinating but who, in conventional terms, had not achieved anything exceptional. Wide Awake also looks at the Berliner's family as it chronicles the filmmaker's preparations for the birth of his first child and his obsession with turning his baby into a sound sleeper. He's been to Israel several times before, and several of his previous films were shown at the Jerusalem festival, including The Sweetest Sound, an examination of his feelings about his name. (He describes the movie, which includes a meeting with other Alan Berliners from around the world, as "ebullient narcissism.") During this visit, he has been fascinated by Israel's security fence (he feels a more accurate name for it is "wall"), a section of which can be seen clearly from the caf terrace. "This wall is going to come down someday, because all walls come down eventually, and it's going to come down on this side, because this side built it," he says. But although several interviewers have asked if he would consider making a film about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he says he can't really see himself doing that. His films are personal in a way that would make a political documentary unlikely. His work has been championed by author and film critic Phillip Lopate (a mutual friend of Berliner and the interviewer), who "challenged me to go deeper, farther, to make my films more essayistic." Berliner speaks of the difference between public attitudes toward literary memoir and his brand of filmmaking. "No one ever said of a memoir, 'I wish she had put less of herself in the memoir.' But they will say that my films are too much about me," he says. When Lopate saw Wide Awake, Berliner was pleased that the writer told him, "This is the film I always hoped you'd make." What will be the subject of Berliner's next film? He says he has no idea. "I have to erase the hard drive in my head [before I can move on]," he says. He's perpetually "jet-lagged in my own time zone," much less while on a visit to Israel, but for now it's time simply to take advantage of the Jerusalem heat and join his wife and son for a swim.