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Movie Review: 'Instant Dreams' Mourning the Polaroid in the Digital Now

Lovers of experimental documentary and old school photography will love the work of director Willem Baptist.

After a two-year period wandering in the woods, lacking distribution, the odd yet engaging documentary Instant Dreams, from director Willem Baptist has finally found release. The strangely winding tale of the death of the Polaroid camera and the attempts to preserve something of the legacy created by famed Polaroid pioneer Edwin H. Land, Instant Dreams is an experimental and highly compelling doc.

Instant Dreams is not a documentary that relies on talking heads expounding in classic straight to camera fashion. Instead, it’s based on the kinds of dribs and drabs, ebbs and flows of a dream. Crossing the globe from the deserts of California to the busy streets of New York City to the labs of Dusseldorf, Germany and around the teeming streets of Tokyo, Instant Dreams carries a heavy dose of history and modernity within its dreamlike structure.

In the California desert, German born artist Stephanie Schneder is keeping the legacy of the polaroid alive with the last bits of her polaroid film stored away in a refrigerator. Her mobile home in the California desert is quaint and peaceful and the desert provides her ideal backdrop for her unusual art which includes models and a dream like story that is perfectly suited to the dreamlike structure of Instant Dreams.

In New York City, reporter turned New Yorker Editor and Author, Chris Bonanos has preserved his love of old polaroid cameras into an obsession that he can’t stop talking about whether it be at parties, in a wonderfully unusual setpiece in the doc, to holidays he spends in the office or on the streets seeking out things to photograph with his seventies style camera. A poignant and sweet call from Chris’s wife asking if he might make it home to put tinsel on the tree is a lovely and telling detail about the places that Chris’s passion has taken him.

Chris’s passion is being passed on to his son, though he’s a bit too young to truly understand the significance of his father’s all-consuming interest. When Chris mentions that by the time his son is old enough to appreciate and understand the significance of the polaroid, the last of the physical stock of polaroid film will likely have been depleted, it’s genuinely heart rending and appropriately mournful.

This information is delivered in a wistful, though not quite matter of fact fashion. Chris appears resigned to the fate of his beloved camera stock. Not everyone however, is entirely resigned to that fate. In Dusseldorf, a team of scientists, led by Stephen Herchen, are attempting to crack the secret of the science behind instant camera technology. Though Polaroid dissolved in 2008, the corporate holdings have fallen to a group called the Impossible Project who have since dedicated themselves to find a way to bring the Polaroid formula back from extinction.

Finally in Tokyo, a young woman has discovered the polaroid format and has made use of modern tech that allows for her iPhone to print photos in the style of a classic Polaroid. She uses it to create projects that she then uploads to her Instagram in a dreamy sequence that bridges time and space in the fashion of a dream, the classic and the painfully modern colliding in a well-captured moment.

One of the other unique characters in Instant Dreams is Polaroid inventor Edwin H. Land. Director Willem Baptist uses archival footage of Land as the closest thing Instant Dreams has to voiceover. Industrial footage of Land touting his creation in the 1960s plays as a loop at various points in Instant Dreams and the ways in which Land anticipated the future, not just in photography but in the ways that humanity would come to communicate via images, adds another powerful kick to Instant Dreams.

The non-traditional style of Instant Dreams will make some viewers a little squirmy. If you’re used to straight to the camera style interview docs with a clear narrative destination, or a clear form of journalism that documents one era to another in some sort of magazine style, this is not the doc for you. Instant Dreams is the kind of doc where the emulsification process of Polaroid film dances across the screen for minutes at a time as people lament and celebrate a lost form of art.

For me, I loved Instant Dreams from beginning to end. I was riveted by the unconventional style and the quirky, dedicated characters. I was especially won over by the moments that director Baptist captures whether staged or organic. At one point we watch Chris taking a Polaroid of a famous New York City hotel and while he waits for a minute for his picture to develop, a young man walks by and takes the same picture with an iPhone. It’s a heavy handed moment that may or may not be staged but the moment affected me.

Instant Dreams has three or four moments that stand out in that way and because of that, it’s one of my favorite documentary experiences of recent memory. It’s going to be available in limited theatrical release on April 19th and will soon be available on streaming services. If you are a fan of old school photography or experimental documentary, you will love Instant Dreams perhaps even more than I do.

Sean Patrick
Sean Patrick

I have been a film critic for more than 17 years and worked professionally, as a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association for the past 6 years. My favorite movie of all time is The Big Lebowski because it always feels new. 

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Movie Review: 'Instant Dreams' Mourning the Polaroid in the Digital Now
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