Dreams as Documentaries: Factual Truth, Reverie Verité and the ‘Archival Self’

This post by Marco Bernini is the final in a one-week takeover (Nov 30 – Dec 5 2020) of The Polyphony by Threshold Worlds, an interdisciplinary project exploring the nexus between dreams, narrative and liminal cognition. The project is supported by the Institute of Advanced Studies and the Institute of Medical Humanities at Durham University. Before the project ends its first phase on December 9-10 with a conclusive workshop, team members were invited to write a short text exploring work-in-progress ideas generated within the past three months of interdisciplinary, cross-cultural and multimedia exchanges.

From Werner Herzog, Encounters at the End of the World, 2007.

Nothing seems as far from the truth-seeking attitude of documentaries than dreams. And yet, what if we consider dreams as spontaneously occurring documentaries? What if we think of dreams as an inner documentary practice whereby our mind delves into archive material of raw facts from our life and dream them into meaning? To equal dreams to documentaries might sound preposterous, even offensive to the sensitive ears of academics, given the efforts analytic philosophers, epistemologists, psychologists or narrative theorists spend negotiating subtleties and borders between facts, truth, fiction and imagination. We have recently heard from Professor Elliot Wolfson, however, how the tension between fiction and truth in dreams should be reconsidered: dreams have a truth-value of their own (to oversimplify horrendously Elliot’s extremely rich argument). In this two-part post, I want to continue this reflection by playing with the idea of dreams as documenting practices.

To problematize the relation between truth, facts, fiction and dreaming I turn for support to two documentary filmmakers who have provided strong theoretical and practical wisdom to the problem: Werner Herzog and Guy Maddin. Herzog has been very vocal against considering documentaries as Cinema Verité. In the first thesis of his 1999 Minnesota Declaration, he writes that “by dint of declaration the so-called Cinema Verité is devoid of verité. It reaches a merely superficial truth, the truth of accountants.” He goes on by explaining how for him (thesis 4) “Fact creates norms, and truth illumination” and that (thesis 3) “Cinema Verité confounds fact and truth, and thus plows only stones. And yet, facts sometimes have a strange and bizarre power that makes their inherent truth seem unbelievable.” Here Herzog implicitly hints at the truth-value that surfaces in such moments of bizarreness and strangeness –qualities that documentaries should be able to capture and, even more importantly, reveal.

From Werner Herzog, Lessons From Darkness, 1992.

Bizarreness and strangeness are also the main qualifiers of dreams, and this is why many of Herzog’s documentaries seem to have a dream atmosphere  (see, e.g., Lessons of Darkness, 1992), and dreams are often taken as topic of conversations by “professional dreamers” (Encounters at the End of the World, 2007) alluding at a dreamlike truth in the real. As such, dreams might provide a model not of a derailing abandoning of reality, but of a new logic capable to illuminate hidden, deeper truth in our waking world and self. True documentaries for Herzog should therefore aim at a what we can call a reverie veritè: a mixture of facts and fiction, archive and creativity, raw data recombined in a series of unfamiliar kairos, renouncing the linearity of the rationalising chronology we impose to our everyday life, and the simple tales of causality we lull (and dull) our selves with. Dreams spontaneously plunge into (I would be tempted to say, ‘they spend time studying’) the archive of our experiences and then take up scissors, tapes, and masking strategies to edit our facts away from their surface truth. If we reconsider documentaries’ ethos, through Herzog, as a strategic revelations of dreamlike truths, the truth unearthed by the flying stones of dreams might be more aligned to a rigorous documenting practice than to epiphenomenal vagaries of our brain and mind. This means that self-documenting our life while awake might require us to fall asleep in the editing room or on the train whereby we travel back to our past. This is what the Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin has done in the sleepiest documentary ever made.

I discovered Guy’ Maddin’s My Winnipeg (2007), when I was visiting Geneva in 2008 with my friend and colleague Guido Furci (now a project affiliate). Retrospectively, I like to think it made perfect sense to encounter such documentary in the city home to the Large Hadron Collider and birthplace of Ferdinand De Saussure’s theory of sign. Maddin’s documentary, or what he calls a “docu-fantasia”, is in fact an experience of archival collisions from his private and cultural past, which liberates a force between signifying images and signified meaning in constant reconfiguration and quasi-hallucinatory reshuffling. Archival signs from his life are unleashed and modulated through peaks of emotional intensities, obsessive concerns, and open questions assaulting the proprietor and target of this showering, revitalised and re-lived debris: Maddin the filmmaker, the explorer, the dreamer.  It also made a lot of sense that the movie theatre in which we watched the movie wasn’t a conventional one: it was staged (a key operation in Maddin’s movie) like a familiar space, with furniture and worn-out comfy couches, perfect for the kind of hypnagogic liminality the film at the same time induces, thematizes and demands from the audience.

At the beginning of the film, we jump on a train full of sleeping or sleepy passengers. Among them, we connect to the fictionalised version of Maddin (played by Darcy Fehr), who is trying to leave once and for all Winnipeg, the city he has not been able to escape for his entire life. The train, we are told, has to traverse the city, go through all the significant buildings, back alleys and memories in Maddin’s life for him to be allowed to leave and break the spell. Visually, we are already trapped with Maddin in a crepuscular black-and-white, with a dreamlike narrowed field of vision, full of firing close-ups whose low resolution is indistinguishable from the archival images that are at the same time illustrating, interpreting and prompting Maddin’s voice-over narration. The cadence of this narration is hypnotic and sleep inducing. It has formulaic repetitions in triplets (“Winnipeg. Winnipeg. Winnipeg. Snowy, sleepwalking Winnipeg”) that, according to Maddin, had “accidentally hypnotized, or at least sent off to sleep, my recording engineer Michel Germain” (My Winnipeg, annotated script).  This is a simple, enchanting device that brings the audience in the same liminal state of the fictionalised Maddin, thus fastening the entire film to an epistemic uncertainty regarding the status of the images: dreams, hypnagogic hybrids, and facts are all mingling as salt and sweet water do at the estuary of a subjective river.  This is also the way Winnipegers live, we are told, when they “sleep as we walk. Walk as we dream. Winnipeg has ten times the sleepwalking rate of any other city in the world. And because we dream of where we walk and walk to where we dream, we are always lost, befuddled”.

What follows is a Joycean wake or stream of hypnagogic consciousness running on two parallel rails. On the first, we follow the history of the city, or better the outcome of archival facts and impressions as they got reconfigured, extended and fictionally or mythologically expanded by Maddin’s sleepy consciousness. We see legions of real archival images which seamlessly and beautifully bind with, and flourish into, dreamy extensions: the most iconic of them is the nightmarish fictional escape of horses from a fire, then freezing to death in the river to become for months a playground for kids and a romantic background for lovers (thus mingling with, and capturing, the real attitude of Winnipeggers to make the most of a difficult environment).

On the other rail, we have Maddin’s personal history of places and people in Winnipeg – the emotional kernel of them being his family house, with his mother as a towering “supernatural” presence. We are told that sleepwalking Winnipeggers carry a bulk of keys, one for each significant domicile they lived in the past, and that they are allowed by the law to enter them at their sleepwaking will, undisturbed by the new owners (they “must leave the confuse wait until he awakes”). Maddin carries only one key, the one to his home, in his youth hosting also his mother’s hair salon.  This is the place of his only recurrent dream (“I can’t stop dreaming of this home”), even if it is continuously shape-shifting (“it keeps changing in my dreams. New shapes, similar, but confusing, all the other addresses that appear where 800 Ellice should be”). In spite of this play of substitution in form, the essence of this dream house allows him to relive the scent of hair sprays, the sound of the “torturing of hair”, the chatting of old women. The mood of this obsessive dream is always happy, yet the awakening bears unresolved emotions (“the dreams are sweet back home, back home. But the waking is bitter, bitter, bitter.”).

Progressively, we realise that the raw facts and emotions radiating from his family house – together with the allegedly supernatural power of the river, of his mother, and of Winnipeg’s mythological truths and hypnagogic default state – constitute the magnetic force that keeps Maddin stuck in his past and tied to his home town.  How to escape the gravitational pull of unresolved feelings and unprocessed images? Waking up is Maddin’s initial drive and solution (“All a dream, all a dream. I need to wake up. Keep my eyes open somehow. I need to get out of here.”). But soon he seems to realise that, instead of escaping the dream, he has to learn from dreams the logic and truth of fictional re-enactments. As a filmmaker, he thus resolves to use the filmmaking technology of Hollywood’s dream factory to film his way out (“Out of here! What if…I film my way out of here?).  He rents back his family house from the current owner and cast actors in the roles of his brothers and sister so that he can “properly recreate the archetypal episodes of my family history. Only here can I isolate the essence of what in this dynamic is keeping me in Winnipeg. And perhaps once this isolation through filmed re-enactment is complete, I can free myself”).

His mother, Maddin’s voice-over tells us, is the only real person playing herself. This is another false information (she is played by the easily recognisable Ann Savage). Yet, its blatant falsity (compared to other more unverifiable mixture of facts and fiction), I would argue, function like a signal for something different. It is this time intended as a prompter for the audience to achieve ‘dream lucidity’: to realise that even this filming therapy is performed within Maddin’s dream state. He is dreaming that he is filming a dreamlike re-enactment of his past. This does not change (actually, it constitutes a key part of) the truth-value of the documenting practice and re-enactment protocols that dreams are offering to Maddin’s autobiographical journey out of his town, and towards his healed self. As A.O.Scott rightly claims in his review of the movie for the New York Times, fact-checking would actually deflate the impact and reverie verité of what he calls Maddin’s “hallucinatory autobiography”.  More than a suspension of disbelief, however, Maddin is leading us to believe in the suspension.

Suspension and indeterminacy are outcomes, not limitations, of the rigorous documenting work that facts and fiction can achieve when teaming up in the process of studying our personal archive. Dreams can therefore provide models and guidelines for documentary and archival work conducted from, by and for the self. They can teach us what they spontaneously do: how to set off to sleep our waking, engineering, linearly narrativised self in the editing room; while manipulating and reconfiguring our life into what I would call our ‘archival self.’ The archival self is larger than life (he can meet Ann Savage as his mother, walk around and kiss among frozen horses, enter other people’s apartments unpunished), truer than fiction, and more meaningful than diligently aligned raw facts. We have a choice then whether to let the archival self fight our waking beliefs, or choose to believe that sleepwalking after all gives us the best of both worlds (and selves). A gift of suspension that is tolerant of conflicts and inconsistencies: capable of wonderful falsity, true originality, collective imagination, novel patterns of associations, and slow-paced acceptance and healing.

Marco Bernini specialises in narrative theory, modernism and cognitive approaches to literature. He has a forthcoming monograph on Samuel Beckett and cognition (Beckett and the Cognitive Method: Minds, Models, and Exploratory Narratives, Oxford University Press) and has published on extended and enactive elements in cognition that are involved, explored or modelled by literary narratives.

One thought on “Dreams as Documentaries: Factual Truth, Reverie Verité and the ‘Archival Self’

  1. This sounds like a fascinating exploration into the intersection of dreams and documentary storytelling! It seems that dreams, with their blend of reality and imagination, could offer unique insights into our subconscious and personal narratives. I’m intrigued by the idea of “Reverie Verité” and how it might capture the essence of our inner worlds through the lens of documentary filmmaking. The concept of an “Archival Self” also sparks curiosity—how do our dreams serve as archives of our experiences and emotions? This topic promises to unravel layers of understanding about the human psyche and the nature of truth in storytelling.

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