All These Sleepless Nights, by Polish filmmaker Michał Marczak, takes us through long evenings of reverie and partying in Marczak’s native Warsaw. Some of this hybrid documentary’s undeniable attraction lies in the quirkiness of the young people it portrays. The film opens on New Year’s Eve, as twenty-something Krzysztof does some personal accounting while gazing at the fireworks beyond his window: How many hours of being in love does one really have in one’s life? How many hours of heartbreak? We follow Krzysztof and his friend, Michał, to all types of nocturnal gatherings. One of these leads them to Eva, a mysterious waif, whose soft voice belies the strong-willed persona she desperately tries to create. Eva and Krzysztof feel immediate attraction and the film traces the denouement of their romance.
Marczak explained how he came upon the trio at the heart of the film, which opens this Friday, April 14 at IFC Center. “You can feel when someone has a special energy and charisma. Michał [who, like Krzysztof, is a student in an art school] is into performative stuff that builds on the moment, on the emotion, the now. This kind of art is more experiential. It works with big concepts, such as love, fate, feelings, stuff that usually is being downplayed in the performative circles.”
Still, the process of finding his protagonists was not an easy one. Marczak spent months in bars and at dance parties, searching for the young people he wanted to work with. He says of Eva: “I keep a little notebook with people I meet along the way, people whose energy impresses me. With Eva, I was drawn to her mix of vulnerability and toughness, the way she seems to nurture this contrast. I wanted to create an atmosphere that really brought out the tensions.”
Throughout, what makes All These Sleepless Nights distinct, beyond the three protagonists philosophical, artistic musings and their charisma, is the camera’s ability to convey the state of intoxication and the dreaminess of the nocturnal juvenilia. “What I’ve always hated about documentaries,” says Marczak, “is that they don’t make you feel like you’re living with the characters. You’re not part of their world, you remain a detached observer, who is being told stuff. But we can get so much more through feeling rather than being given facts. In documentary, you can have that affirmation, that total connectedness. You’re super-anchored to reality.”
Total connectedness in Marczak’s case required working with a small crew, so that he could seamlessly become part of any environment. Marczak used natural lighting, in most cases. He pre-lit parties only in most rare cases. He also built a special rig for his camera that allowed him maximum fluid movement and coordination, while shooting party scenes. And then, he also re-worked the soundtrack, in the studio. “Music is a big part of the people and places I filmed,” Marczak explained. “We didn’t want to lower or turn off the music while filming, so we ended up with real rough production sound. We recreated all of it later, so we could filter out background noise and music. This way, we avoided having a cacophony, which our human ear actually filters out in the moment.”
The authenticity extends not only to sound, but also to locations. Particularly striking are some of the post-communist locales, which speaks to a peculiar nostalgia, and to Poland’s unique history, which includes two world wars, and a prolonged period under Stalinist rule. “It’s ironic,” Marczak says, “that some of the places, such as the Palace of Culture [in the center of Warsaw] are now one of the most popular clubs. The same communist colossus that we wanted to demolish in the 90s is now cherished by most Varsovians.” And then, there is the atmosphere of Warsaw, in general: “In the summer, we have short nights and these extremely long, picturesque sunsets and sunrises. It’s also a time when everybody leaves the city on vacation, so Warsaw really becomes your playground. Those are the times of most magical experiences. It was my conscious decision to cut everything else out, because that’s what I recall from the time I was twenty—a lot of sleepless nights.”
The film has garnered mostly positive reviews in Europe, though not without some controversy in Poland. “Some of the [critiques] reflect our Polish psyche,” says Marczak. “For 75-plus years, with brief exceptions in the 60s, we didn’t have the possibility of young people in the streets philosophizing or expressing themselves. We didn’t go through the sexual or the hippie revolutions. And finally we have freedom. Some viewers have asked, ‘Why are these kids wasting their time? Why aren’t they doing something productive? Have no concrete plans?’ But the film, of course, focuses on their nightlife. It doesn’t show young people’s families, jobs, or studies, which doesn’t mean they don’t have any. In general, it’s about people who come up with their own answers. Some of their conversations may strike us as redundant, perhaps raising issues that were already raised in the 60s or 70s, or considered by philosophers in the 1800s, but this doesn’t matter. There is joy in discovering truths for yourself, even if we don’t take these truths at face value. In the end, I trust the audience to make its own conclusions.”