8 April 2018

In Slumberland with Apichatpong Weerasethakul

By By Paige Lim

In Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s world, one can never be certain if binary opposites truly exist. The lines between sleeping and consciousness, dream and reality, past and present, light and darkness are routinely blurred and redefined as seen in his previous works: Tropical Malady (2004), Syndromes and a Century (2006), Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) and most recently, Cemetery of Splendour (2015).

Such concepts may sound abstract on paper and appear even more so when transposed to the silver screen. But at the 47th International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) in the Netherlands, European audiences got just the opportunity to transcend these intangible boundaries with a visit to SLEEPCINEMAHOTEL – a one-off installation-cum-fully operational hotel created by Apichatpong himself.

Nederland, Rotterdam, 25-01-18,
Photo by Jan de Groen

The IFFR is one of the biggest audience-oriented film festivals around the world, known for championing experimental cinema as well as the intersection between art and film. The festival’s cutting-edge arts programme this year, Art Directions, featured an impressive line-up of crossover pop-up exhibitions, installations and performances by renowned and emerging artists. This included SLEEPCINEMAHOTEL, one of the highlights of the IFFR’s 47th edition.

During the first week of the festival, an entire hall on the third floor of the World Trade Center Rotterdam was converted into a cosy communal dormitory space. Inside, three single and five double loft beds were mounted at different heights, all connected by scaffolding framework decked with netting and canvas curtains. Seems like any ordinary setup, till one notices the soft glow of a giant circular screen looming out of the darkness – almost like a vortex gateway to another dimension.

Photo by Jan de Groen

At €75, guests could spend a night at SLEEPCINEMAHOTEL and be part of an immersive film-sleep experiment, watching a 120-hour stream of documentary clips – contributed by the EYE Filmmuseum and The Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision – playing round-the-clock. It was a serene amalgamation of projected images: sleeping humans, sleeping animals, clouds, landscapes, waterscapes, boats, windmills, and no footage is ever repeated. Members of the public could also visit the installation in the daytime through a viewing balcony.

Photo by SGIFF

Whether such hypnagogic images are capable of seeping into an unconscious mind when one is asleep is really the question SLEEPCINEMAHOTEL seeks to answer. In the morning, guests were encouraged to note down their dream experiences in a “dream” guestbook.

The idea that cinema shares an inherently close link with dreaming served as Apichatpong’s inspiration for SLEEPCINEMAHOTEL. He said: “I’ve always believed that we possess the best cinema. We don’t need the cinema of others. When we sleep, it’s our own images that we see, and our own experiences at night. It’s underrated – we just throw them away, but in fact each time we dream, it’s a lot.”

It is perhaps no coincidence that the time it takes for a human being to complete an entire five-stage sleep cycle – 90 minutes – is also the average duration of a feature film, noted Apichatpong. “That’s why we go to the cinema – it’s like a cave and is dark. Cinema is always trying to mimic dreams; it’s about getting lost in a different narrative that we cannot control.”

Accompanied by an ambient soundtrack of waves, birds and the creaking of ships designed by Apichatpong’s sound designer, the images for SLEEPCINEMAHOTEL were specially curated with Rotterdam’s port city status and historical context in mind. Apichatpong has been a time-honoured guest at the IFFR for the last two decades, with the festival supporting and screening many of his films beginning from the 1998 documentary Mysterious Object At Noon, for which he received a grant from the Hubert Bals Fund. “Rotterdam is a city that was bombed and had to be rebuilt from nothing. What is manifested in the footage onscreen is the existence and memory of the past…so it’s like reconnecting the spirit from a different time,” he said.


Photo by Jan de Groen

Another aspect the filmmaker wanted to bring across in SLEEPCINEMAHOTEL was a communal experience, with the hotel designed to have guests all sleeping in the same space. “When we grow up and become adults, we become used to this privacy of sleep. But SLEEPCINEMAHOTEL brings you back to your childhood when you would go to camp, or have sleepovers with friends,” he said.

The festival’s visitors enthusiastically responded in kind – SLEEPCINEMAHOTEL was fully booked for its entire five-day duration. One guest even mentioned to Apichatpong that it was the best sleep he had had in months.

While his 2015 feature Cemetery of Splendour was about soldiers struck with a strange sleeping illness, the filmmaker’s fascination with the dynamics of sleep go back much further. “In the late 90s I made a short film recording myself when I just woke up. I don’t know why I was so obsessed with this state in the beginning. But I was fascinated with observing my own body through the day, and later when I was into meditation, it made more sense. Because you’re just observing your breathing, your focus, and your thinking.”

Nederland, Rotterdam, 27-01-18,
IFFR 2018. Big Talk with Apichatpong Weerasethakul moderated by Chris Dercon in Hilton Le Jardin.
Photo by Jan de Groen

To be more precise, Apichatpong’s area of interest really lies with the unknowable “in-between”; the border separating between two physical or non-physical states. This first began when he shot his 2002 feature Blissfully Yours, about a love affair that sparks during a picnic on the Thai-Burmese border.

“Since that time I’ve been interested in the border between light and darkness, beginning from fact and fiction, and whether this exists. Sleep is something that we experience daily, and it’s a line that is very interesting – from the way we fall from conscious to unconscious, or something in between,” he said.

Whether these borders even exist at all is also debatable. He added: “For me, the time now is always divided between science and art. We tend to categorise things, and this is something I feel we should eliminate: what is called art, what is called cinema, what is called science.”

More than just a biological function, sleep is a recurring motif in Apichatpong’s lexicon of metaphorical language when it comes to his works. Almost 40 minutes of sleeping time can be observed in Cemetery of Splendour, with the film’s central sleeping epidemic that besets its characters serving as a social and political allegory on Thailand’s history. His next film, set to be shot in Colombia in 2019, will likewise feature more sleep-induced hallucinations.

Apichatpong said: “Politically speaking, our body is a vehicle. When you cannot deal with reality, you sleep because it’s the place where nobody can control you.”

“Even you cannot control yourself, so sleep can be a liberation.”