Polaroid. The very name conjures up images, literally. The original company, founded in 1937 by Edwin Land, initially specialized in polarized glasses, though they are most well known for their instant cameras. With these, all one had to do is take a picture and wait 60 seconds for the photo to be developed within the camera itself. The brand name became so synonymous with instant images that the word Polaroid could mean the company, the camera, or the photo.
Sadly, Polaroid declared bankruptcy in 2001 and its assets and licensing were reformed under the “New Polaroid.” They too went under, and Polaroid announced the end of their film stock production. Willem Baptist’s documentary Instant Dreams presents three very different people all with the same goal- to keep Polaroid alive and thriving. The audience is first introduced to chemist Stephen Herchen, who is attempting to recreate the chemical processes that allow instant photography entirely from scratch.
“The brand name became so synonymous with instant images that the word Polaroid could mean the company, the camera, or the photo.”
Chris Bonanos is using his limited supply of film left to chronicle his son’s life. The New York Magazine writer wants his young child to experience the tactile bond that comes from a Polaroid. In a rather fun moment, Baptist observes Bonanos at a party. The writer claims a spot on the couch, and a revolving door of guests sit with him and talk. Then he takes a photo, and the former stranger takes it with them as an instant keepsake from their newly formed bond.
Finally, the film follows German artist Stefanie Schneider, who currently resides in southern California. She creates pieces of art using her Polaroid film stock. The problem is that her stockpile is both dwindling and expiring, causing worse resolution in the photo. Her artwork occasionally calls for models or actors, and she did an exciting series with cult actor Udo Kier.
Instant Dreams does a remarkable job of juggling each story and making the viewer invested in each part. The history of the company and its founder, Land, would be enough for a movie all on its own. Baptist’s interests though, lie within the legacy of instant picture taking and why it should be saved. Schneider’s art would not work if she were to digitize those photos. Digital cameras offer similar immediate immortalization of a given moment but leave a different feeling behind after being taken.
Thanks to director of photography Gregor Meerman’s remarkable cinematography, Instant Dreams comes across as one. There are trippy looking swirls that come and go during the opening titles that are revealed as chemical reactions from Herchen’s attempts at recreating the chemical properties of instant photo taking. Watching Schneider work, the film goes into slow motion as she treks the desert.
“Digital cameras offer similar immediate immortalization of a given moment but leave a different feeling behind after being taken.”
The filmmakers also cleverly play with the perception of the audience. Images that look like one thing are revealed to be something else entirely. The opening titles are set to swirls of colored liquids and lights, almost as if one is traveling down a wormhole. It is the chemicals Herchen is testing to get the instant formula exact. When observing Bonanos on the couch at the party, the editing seamlessly segues from one guest to the next. It is visually gripping.
Some might take umbrage with how little is given about the three Polaroid devotees until later on, as it takes an hour to fully understand why they consider Polaroid so crucial to their lives. However, the preceding moments take one through the whirlwind history of the company, with heavy use of archival footage and news. The intercutting of Land’s corporate life and the state of Polaroid now makes for a surprisingly dramatic arc.
Instant Dreams makes a strong case for the necessity of instant photography. Its three main subjects are compelling and well spoken. The film’s powerful, hypnotic images, and the mesmerizing score only add to the dream-like atmosphere being conveyed.
Instant Dreams (2019) Directed by Willem Baptist. Written by Willem Baptist. Starring Stephen Herchen, Chris Bonanos, Stefanie Schneider, Edwin H. Land, Caitlin Fowler, Angela Riccio, Ayana J.J.
9 out of 10 Instant Photographs