Director Willem Baptist (Wild Boar, I’m Never Afraid!) brings his dreams alive in his visually enthralling feature, "Instant Dreams" — a vivid tribute to the chemical majesty of Polaroid instant film. Baptist recaptures the magic of analog photography in the digital era, hypnotizing his audience with the use of swirling color and visuals, and telling the heartfelt stories of two of its adoring enthusiasts. Instant Dreams begins showing in select cinemas on April 19, 2019.
Were you a fan of Polaroid before making this documentary?
I bought a Polaroid camera at a fly market when I was in my teens and couldn’t find any film for it. At a camera shop, the owner gave me a bunch of expired film that was collecting dust in a storage room. The pictures I took were horribly out of focus and the chemistry was off but I really felt empowered. I felt like an artist capturing something from my subconscious mind. I wasn’t a fan in the literal sense but that magical memory stuck with me and inspired me to make a film that focuses on our relationship with these images.
In an interview with the Dutch newspaper Trouw, you had mentioned that your dreams were a source of inspiration in the making of Instant Dreams. Could you tell us a little more about how your dreams influenced your filmmaking from the early writing stages to the final cut of the film?
It all started with a dream I had of a woman in a bathtub in the desert. I casually talked to a French actress about it at a film festival in Kiev while researching and discussing different Polaroid artists that would maybe be interesting for this film. The actress told me she had reoccurring dreams about this photograph that hung above her bed in her Paris apartment. That photograph was shot by photographer Stefanie Schneider. Stefanie, who is featured in the film, lives in the desert area, a Polaroid-esque world, near Twenty Nine Palms, California. Not only is she the ultimate living polaroid artist working with loads of expired polaroid film, but she also happened to frequently use a bathtub in the midst of the desert for her photoshoots. This ended up being a scene in the film.
In Instant Dreams, the dichotomy of art vs. science, past vs. present, connection vs. isolation, were quite prevalent. With the invention of instant photography (analog vs. digital), there have been significant changes in the way that we think about life, time, social connection, and artistic expression. What do you believe are the unintended consequences of instant photography (analog vs. digital) to the human experience?
Polaroid photography is unique; it’s a mixture between science, art & authenticity and mystery.
It starts when you load film in the camera, it becomes alive. (the batteries are in the cassette). The technical process from loading the film to hearing the photograph coming out of the camera is like a ritual that magicians do. And just like magic the photo develops in front of our eyes. We know its chemistry but like a magic trick we don’t really want to know how it works, so we shake the polaroid, as if like waving a magic wand. Then there are the otherworldly colors, the empowering sense that we as artist are responsible for that image. An image that takes time to develop, time that makes us reflect on the moment. It’s a tangible object wherein the light that hits the subject is cast into this object. Every polaroid photo that has been shot was held by the maker and most likely there was a conversation struck between subject and photographer whilst the image was developing.
Analog photography and especially Polaroids relates to our yearning for real authentic experiences and reflecting on the moment. In our ever smaller more connected world we feel something nowadays is lacking. So we design hand written font’s for organic meals, embrace vinyl and cassette’s and yes, also polaroids, to get that feeling back. We don’t get that as fully from an image that’s made of pixels. Do you know that 80% of what we see with our eyes is generated in our brains? We like to connect the dots. We see with our emotions not our eyes. We are hardwired for analog imperfect images, as we are analog ourselves. I don’t think digital will ever really replace that feeling. Just like it is impossible to replace our memories of writing letters with email or navigating the wilderness without GPS. How does one replace the feeling of being lost, the fear of the unexpected, the anticipation of waiting for an answer to a letter? You can’t. Digital is based on result and knowing the outcome, not on the experience of getting to that result or the uncertainty of the outcome. It’s messy just like how we experience our lives.
Much of Instant Dreams surrounds the concept of “Wabi-sabi”- a term that describes beauty in the imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. This was especially evident in the work of photographer Stefanie Schneider, where she praises the inconsistencies in her prints. How much does "Wabi-sabi" play into your filmmaking process as a Documentarian?
I wouldn’t say I’m looking for imperfect images in my films but I do strive to capture that added sense of mystery and wonder you get from any analog medium. The first documentaries I shot where on 16mm film and I really love the way the grain, otherworldly colors and especially how movement is captured. Instant Dreams was shot digitally on Arri Alexa cameras but we maintain a work method as shooting on film. Aesthetically I try to find locations, shot compositions and lighting that has that same kind of vibe; where things look a bit off or strange and makes the viewer think a bit more. It’s all about setting up visual dots and motifs that the audience has to connect.
In addition to Impossible Film (now Polaroid Originals), companies like Fujifilm and Kodak are looking for ways in which they can market instant film into the digital age ( i.e. incorporation of Bluetooth, editing, mobile instant printers, etc.) What is your opinion of digital photography and where do you see the future of analog photography in this era?
I don’t think you can replace analog with digital (add-ons) to capture the same feeling. Maybe in the future new experiences will come to life, be it via virtual reality or something like that. But unless we have a device that brings us closer to the way our senses and brain works analog will be king in a world yearning for real-life authentic experiences.
How was your experience of working with cinematographer Gregor Meerman in order to make your vision come to life on the screen?
I was a very smooth process as Gregor as we really connected in our love for classic cinema. I am a very visual orientated and technical filmmaker and in the past, I used to pre-photograph all my films to lay the groundwork and rules for the cinematography. A bit like storyboarding but with photographic stills to capture the angles and general mood for all key locations. During the pre-production, I basically did the same but put that to the side very soon as I discovered Gregor and I really spoke the same film language. We talked intensively about visual influences ranging from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and The Holy Mountain. Then when it came to actually shooting the film on location, we just needed a few words to adapt to what was happening in real life with the characters.
If you had infinite resources and budget, what is a fantasy project you would like to tackle?
Oh man, that is a hard question to answer. In an ideal fantasy world, I would like to be asked to direct one of the new Star Wars movies or any movie that relates to growing up in the ’80s. One can only dream.
What's next for you?
I’m just finishing a documentary about a group of Dutch Pro-Wrestlers and hope to develop a fiction feature in the near future.