Instant Dreams


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Instant Dreams
"A dazzling piece of work."

In 1948, Dr Edwin Land created Polaroid film. In 2008, largely superseded by digital cameras, it ceased to be produced. Now, 18 years after Land's death, a team of experts led by engineer Stephen Herchen is trying to recreate it.

This is the sort of stuff that will always find an audience amongst people who are drawn to cinema because of their interest in the medium itself, but Willem Baptist's documentary has the potential to reach far beyond that. It presents a story full of mystery and intrigue. Land's house was destroyed by fire along with all his notes and precious chemical formulae. Nobody knows how the film was made because he ran his operation like a spy ring, telling each chemist only what they absolutely had to know to do their job, using code names for chemicals so they didn't know exactly what they were working with. Early attempts to solve the puzzle have succeeded in creating instant film but nothing that works fast enough to be used the same way, and nothing that captures that sensational blend of colours.

Copy picture

With original Polaroid film now close to expiry, little of it continuing to work as it did, fans of the product are feeling the pinch. Artist Stephanie Schneider has a fridge full f film that is on its last legs. She clearly finds it difficult to face up to using it for the last time, and heads out into the California desert where she can get the best possible light for a glamour shoot that showcases its colour to the full, along with the once familiar orangey glow of overexposure and streaks from the rollers inside the camera. At the other side of the country, Christopher Bonanos has a more modest but deeply personal project: he's been using Polaroids to track the growth of his son. Even the temporary absence of the medium will mean the loss of precious memories.

It may be difficult for a generation growing up with digital and 'true colour' to grasp how important different kinds of physical film have been to artists to appreciate the unique look that each one has, the character it brings with it, or to understand why some photographers and filmmakers go to great lengths to track down old stock, even choosing to shoot on it after it has expired. Baptist goes some way towards bridging the gap by making splendid use of colour, symmetry and irregularity in a work that will hold your gaze from start to finish. It's a dazzling piece of work, visually inventive and sometimes dreamlike, carrying the viewer from informationally dense discussions into visual displays so smoothly that you'll barely even notice - the effect is hypnotic.

Land was, we're told, originally inspired by a question from his small daughter after a family day out: why couldn't she see the photographs straight away? It's ironic that, in an age where we have become used to getting much of what we want instantly, we once again have to wait for results from film cameras - and to await the rebirth of a medium which many continue to love.

Reviewed on: 19 Apr 2019
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Tracing fans of instant polaroids who are working to keep the medium alive.
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Director: Willem Baptist

Writer: Willem Baptist

Year: 2017

Runtime: 91 minutes

Country: Netherlands


DOC NYC 2018

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