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“All my films are journeys in some way”

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Christian Frei • Director


- "This one is a journey into the inner world of the brokenhearted, into the mystery of the most important thing in life... love!"

Christian Frei • Director

After carrying us on a journey through faraway galaxies (Space Tourists [+see also:
film profile
), Christian Frei is this time - with his latest documentary Sleepless in New York [+see also:
film review
film focus
interview: Christian Frei
film profile
- taking us on an adventure within our own darkest selves, discovering that elusive feeling we call love. Through the intimacy of three recently broken hearts, and the illuminated considerations of Doctor Helen Fisher (an internationally recognized anthropologist and researcher on heart aches), the Swiss director pushes us to reflect on ourselves, on our dependences and our fragility. 

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Cineuropa:What leads you to investigate the strong emotional pain called heartbreak? What makes this subject so interesting?

Christian Frei : Love is the best thing in life! But sometimes you don’t realise it until it's gone. When you’ve been left. A few years ago, turmoil in my private life brought me to a point that made the dimension and the power of love immediately clear. During that same period, I came across an article about Helen Fisher’s research on the lovelorn. She is a biological anthropologist and the most quoted person on love in the world today. She has written five books on love and is also the first scientist to put romantically rejected men and women into a brain scanner. She has been able to prove, for the first time, that romantic rejection is an addiction. And I thought: If it’s possible to put people in the actual condition of heartbreak into an MRI scanner... to look at what this grief does inside the brain... then it might also be possible to capture the intense power of this addiction in a documentary! Authentically, like it has never been done before. The extreme lows, severe cravings, the desperation and loneliness… but also the intense passion! Heartbreak is not only terrible and perilous and life-threatening; it also releases an incredible energy and creativity; it has something cathartic about it. Of the great works of art in human history... how many were created in this feverish state?

Why did you choose New York? Would it have been the same working in Europe?

New York is full of single people and was an ideal laboratory for me. People there are more extraverted in general, compared to Europe. And it takes a certain openness to the many facets of life to participate in a documentary like this! Imagine… you’ve just been dumped, your beloved has told you that there’s somebody more attractive than you and your self-esteem is at its lowest! And just at this very moment of extreme crisis Christian Frei approaches you, asking you to let him capture your state of despair for the big screen! I was totally surprised that we actually succeeded up finding three wonderful protagonists, willing to participate in the film.

How did you find the people involved in the documentary?

We posted flyers in gyms, bars and worked extensively with social media and the Internet. This is how we reached out to the lovelorn. They could apply to become a participant and on our dedicated website "Lovelorn in New York" they could keep a separation diary, a dialogue with themselves. We called it a "logbook of feelings". Just getting down everything that came to them. Writing was really helpful for them! And for my part, I learned a lot about the dynamics of heartbreak. And out of several dozen participants – from every age, race and sexual orientation – I chose my three protagonists.

With Sleepless in New York you are exploring something "new"/"unusual" (despite their omnipresence in feature films, love and heartbreak are unusual topics in documentary) and most of all you are going in a different direction compared with your previous documentary work...

Sleepless in New York is the most important documentary I’ve ever done. Because the topic of love is so important in people’s lives everywhere around the world! So powerful and gripping and indeed a real challenge in terms of storytelling and dramaturgy. After successful films like War Photographer and Space Tourists, after getting a reputation for finding my subjects in the most inaccessible and dangerous places, I wanted to go into another direction! All my films are journeys in some way. This one is a journey into the inner world of the brokenhearted, into the mystery of the most important thing in life... love! It’s a film for those in love, out of love or looking for love.

Why is the topic of heartbreak interesting from a documentary point of view?

Because we’ve all been there! We all know about the soul-crushing stomach-twisting depths of despair when you’ve just been dumped! We all know heartbreak isn’t something that just happens to teenagers! We all know about the importance of sex, love and relationships! But nobody has ever tried to capture the frenzied nights of the newly rejected in a documentary. I think that no actor is capable of truly expressing these nights full of pain and tears, the wakefulness and creativity, the long - and finally! - beautiful path towards a new self. 

How did you artistically approach this subject?

Cinematographer Peter Indergand and I spent months of intensive work on the issue of how to translate this interior-world subject in a way that is visually effective and attractive. We wanted to make a stunning, exciting film! One of our solutions was in developing a spherical mirror that we used to shoot in the New York subway system. The camera concept also meant that Peter Indergand shot a lot of scenes with the protagonists alone: just camera and person. This let us achieve a high degree of authenticity and intimacy. And then again music also plays a critical role in this film. It creates an oppressive mood of craving from which the protagonists gradually liberate themselves during the course of the film. As if they were being reborn!

The working conditions on Sleepless in New York were probably quite a bit less constrained compared with your previous documentaries. How did the "freedom" of working in a city like New York influence your work?

I wouldn’t say that shooting in New York was always so easy. There are actually quite a lot of absurd rules and restrictions! For instance: We wanted to shoot in Central Park one Sunday since that's a day when the park is abuzz with people and activity and always has a very New York look and feel. But the parks authorities would only give us a permit to shoot on a weekday. They felt that our small three-person crew would upset the park visitors! The days of the US being really a free country is a thing of the past.

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