Five Questions with Hugues Sweeney of The National Film Board of Canada

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Journal of Insomnia is one of the most buzzed-about installations at Storyscapes, Tribeca Film Festival’s inaugural showcase of multi-platform projects that is on view to the public from April 18-21. The National Film Board of Canada, which is behind the project, has a reputation for engaging, cutting edge transmedia work and Insomnia is no exception.

The project lends itself to the interactive nature of transmedia for many reasons, not the least of which is that a traditional documentary about insomnia might, quite frankly, cure your insomnia. The Insomnia installation at Storyscapes, which extends from an existing web documentary, invites visitors into an askew cube that isolates them from their surroundings and mimics the experience of being an insomniac. While inside, the participant answers questions about their own experiences with sleeplessness via an interactive display, the answers to which could become part of the collective and ongoing “journal” that is being built.

Hugues Sweeney conceived of and produced the project, and invited filmmakers Bruno Choiniere, Philippe Lambert, Thibaut Duverneix and Guillaume Braun to create it. Sweeney shares with POV his approach to Insomnia.

How did you conceive of this project?

Hugues Sweeney: Mental health is an issue that we deal with at the NFB. Insomnia is one of those conditions that is talked about from a clinical point of view, but rarely talked about from human point of view. Dealing with insomnia is inherently solitary, but the internet allows it to be about connection.

Once I knew that this was the issue I wanted to tackle, the concept developed with three considerations in mind: 1) using all the attributes of the internet to tell a story; 2) making insomniacs themselves a part of the process; 3) moving a personal experience into a collective experience.

Why did you decide to do this as a transmedia project rather than a traditional film?

HS: It was a natural fit. The Internet is insomnia. It never sleeps. You’re always at different places at the same time. It’s purely solitairy and purely collective at the same time.

Why is it important to you that the project be presented to a live audience rather than just existing online?

HS: More and more we will see media leaving screens and reinvesting in physical space. The mechanisms are more light and transportable to make that possible. In the case of Journal of Insomnia, we’re a public production about a social issue, so people physically getting involved is totally relevant and intrinsic to what we want to do.

On that note, what do you hope people walk away with after interacting with your installation?

HS: All of our projects are conversation starters, not necessarily pieces of journalism or educational media. I want people to talk about insomnia. It can be seen as a sign of weakness. There is definitely a taboo around it. One of every two people we tried to shoot with retracted at the last minute. I want people to use this project as a pretext to discuss insomnia from an anthropological, historical, and human perspective.

The NFB consistently turns out amazing projects. What do you think has been the secret to repeated success?

HS: NFB has always been innovative. Direct cinema and IMAX were created here. One of first computer animated films was produced here. It’s our legacy. The standard is creativity and excellence, and we’re inspired by the evolution of technology. We create the context and possibility for creators and we push them as far as possible.

For updates on the documentaries and interactive works at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival, subscribe to POV’s documentary blog, like POV on Facebook or follow us on Twitter @povdocs.

Liz Nord
Liz Nord
Filmmaker and multi-platform producer Liz Nord (Jericho’s Echo: Punk Rock In The Holy Land) is embracing transmedia with her new documentary project, Jerusalem Unfiltered and as director of Lyka's Adventure Labs. She has produced media projects around the world, including MTV's Emmy Award-winning 2008 presidential election coverage, and has presented on a wide range of creativity and media-related topics, notably as a TED speaker at TEDxDumbo.