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Who Needs Sleep?
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by Collin Souter

"The science of sleep deprivation"
4 stars

(SCREENED AT THE 2006 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL) I wonder if the programmers at the Sundance Film Festival intentionally screened Haskell Wexler’s documentary Who Needs Sleep? at 8:30am for the critics when they knew we’d be in the throws of sleep deprivation. It certainly makes Wexler’s arguments seem all the more potent (Oddly enough, the movie I saw after this one was Michel Gondry’s dreamlike The Science of Sleep). When you’re covering a film festival and seeing as many as six films a day, sleep deprivation becomes a part of your everyday existence, but at least you’re not hurting anyone, except maybe yourself. If you’re working 19 hours on a film crew, however, it’s an entirely different story.

Haskell Wexler—the legendary cinematographer who shot One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe, among countless others—spent eight years making Who Needs Sleep?, a documentary about film crews in Hollywood and the ridiculous 19-hour days they work at the expense of seeing their families. The death of cameraman Brent Hershman served as the catalyst for this documentary. After a week of 19-hour days on the set of Pleasentville in 1998, Hershman drive home, swerved off the road and died in a car crash.

Hershman’s death—it is often repeated—should serve as a wake-up call to film crews, studios and Unions that new working conditions need to be enforced before more deaths occur. As it is, though, one needs to work 80 hours a week in order to qualify for health insurance. Studios also have strict deadlines and can’t afford (or won’t flip the bill for) shorter work days. Petitions have been signed, Union leaders have been contacted and statements have been sent, and still no hour limit on a film set has been regulated.

But Wexler tries his best. Having been in the business since the late ‘50s and with such an incredible resume, it’s no surprise that Wexler populates his film with numerous Hollywood personalities and bigwigs. Julia Robers, Richard Donner, Richard Zanuck, Billy Crystal, Annette Bening, Tom Hanks, Sam Mendes and many others offer their support for Wexler’s cause. Wexler also has full access to various movies sets, such as Casanova and Road To Perdition, which was shot by his dear friend Conrad Hall, who died shortly thereafter.

Apparently, Conrad Hall worked himself to death (or so it is suggested by the film) and that’s precisely what Wexler wants to keep from happening again. We follow him to sleep clinics, watch him try to corner Union leaders into answering tough questions and making phone calls to other officials who avoid Wexler’s questions of danger in the workplace. Wexler fully acknowledges he’s doing Michael Moore-type stunts to make his point, but it works. We also travel abroad where we learn on the set of Casanova, that Europeans have regulated hours: 12 hours for work, 12 hours off from work. This has been the rally cry for crew workers in the United States. When you see a crew member wearing a t-shirt or hat with “12 on / 12 off” on it, they likely signed a petition.

The festival program listed Who Needs Sleep? as being 72 minutes long, but it was at least a half-hour longer than that. It certainly could be shorter. After all, will anyone outside the film industry care about the working conditions of film crews? Many would probably make the argument that working conditions in China and Korea are considerably more appalling, but thankfully, the subjects interviewed in Wexler’s documentary don’t appear to be whining. They seem just as concerned as he is and if he doesn’t bring this material to the attention of his or anyone else’s bosses, who will?

Regardless of the questionable target audience, Who Needs Sleep? is entertaining and interesting enough for film buffs, especially if you’ve worked in the industry yourself in any capacity, be it on a film crew, as a film festival reviewer or (God forbid) a film festival employee. We all claim to “eat, sleep and breathe” our passion and, of course, we want to impress the higher-ups who sign our paychecks, but how much is enough? When driving home incredibly sleepy is the same as driving home drunk, why not just stay at work and sleep in the office like a caged animal? Because, as documentaries often suggest, we can always, always do better.

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originally posted: 02/04/06 16:36:41
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2006 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

2/12/09 Gayle Greene A really important documentary! I'm a professor, I teach courses in sleep--it's right on. 5 stars
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  DVD: 06-Jun-2006



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